On Saturday I got to hear Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, speak to the local government conference of the Liberal Democrats.
In The speech itself Nick dealt with the Party’s reaction to the current political situation, the pressures of coalition government, the economy, and laid some ground for yesterday’s budget.
It was a confident and reassuring speech made to an audience of councillors and party actvists. In content it contained nothing very remarkable. Yet it struck me that it was very much the speech of a government minister giving a government line. Not something we are especially used to and remarkable enough in itself for a Liberal Democrat!
Afterwards there was time for a few questions from the audience. I found it interesting that in answering the questions Nick was more animated and engaging. It seemed that you could gain a much clearer sense of his true thinking from his response to the questions than you could from the prepared speech. It is one of the more attractive things about Nick Clegg is that, while he can do the politician thing, if you ask him a question he finds it very difficult not to try and give you an honest answer.
I also reflected on how comfortably Nick seemed to be wearing government office. I suspect that dealing with the choices of government, and the issues, arguments and langauge involved in that, suit Clegg’s communication style. Some politicians are a more natural fit for opposition. I don’t think that Nick Clegg is one of those.
Nick admitted that entering the coalition is a huge gamble. He recognised that it is a risk, but a risk worth taking. “Let’s try and shape events not simply stand as spectators”, he said.
He talked of the personal pressure of office and how he has established a discipline of taking some time everyday to remind himself of the reasons why he is doing this. He then went on to highlight some of the liberal things the coalition is achieving.
But his main message was about public finances and the forthcoming budget. This was he said a time of unprecedented fiscal crisis. He was “in cold sweat” about how bad it is. But he was keen to blame Labour for creating the mess.
I thought that his argument that failure to deal with the deficit would represent a kind of generational theft came across very strongly. The political difficulties of dealing with the deficit were also highlighted by discussion of how as a Sheffield MP he had to handle the decision about the withdrawal of the government loan to Sheffield Forgemasters. This was “not easy”.
He stressed how the budget is a hugely important political moment. His view was that we needed to make big contoversial decisions soon, not just for political reasons, but because in a time of uncertainity there is a need to give the country a very clear direction.
On the politics he was optimistic. He recognised that coalition government is an act of compromise, but that outside the media and the Westminster village people find this fact totally uncontreversial. The public have a far more sensible view of the politics of coalition than many are giving them credit for.
One important factor that I think he was right to stress is how being in government makes the Liberal Democrats “relevant” in a way that they have not been before. This means that fears of the party losing it’s identity are misplaced. “Without relevance you can’t express your identity” was the point he made.
The thought I came away with most strongly after listening to Nick Clegg that morning was how much this coalition adventure is about being in it for the long haul. It has to be about staying the course for the full five years as that is the only way this will work. So for most Liberal Democrats the next few months should be about holding our nerve.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.