LIBERAL Democrat leader Nick Clegg promised to protect the ‘soul’ of his party, after angry members raised questions about unpopular coalition policies.
A record 3,000 delegates registered for the Spring Conference, the first time they had been able to question Mr Clegg since they ratified his pact with the Tories last May.
They forced him to modify his stance on NHS reforms and pushed him on tuition fees, social mobility and his relationship with David Cameron.
But Mr Clegg won the crowd over during two speeches to the conference, launching a fierce defence of his policies.
In his closing speech the Sheffield Hallam MP admitted the Coalition agreement meant the party was being forced to back ‘decisions which aren’t exactly the ones we would make on our own’.
But he said: “Let me reassure you, David Cameron hasn’t kidnapped me. Although I gather some people were planning to this weekend,” and added: “I haven’t changed one bit.”
He said: “We all know that we did not take the easy path last May. But we did take the right path.
“Being in power with the problems we inherited is hard. Explaining why we are having to make cuts is hard.
“And being in coalition with another party is not always easy either.
“So yes, we have had to toughen up. But we will never lose our soul.”
He criticised the ‘Old Left’ for criticising the Coalition’s achievements and said the country’s right-wing had never wanted the Lib Dems in power in the first place.
He added: “We are not on the left and we are not on the right. Our politics is the politics of the radical centre. In government, on your side.”
During a question and answer session on the second day, delegate Tom Wood said: “I’m in the difficult position of being a Liberal Democrat who works in a student union. People feel betrayed. How can we show them we are still to be trusted?”
Mr Clegg said the issue ‘has caused us, quite rightly, a great deal of anguish’, but he added: “We were really stuffed on this. We were isolated because both Labour and the Conservatives agreed more with each other than they did with us.”
Another member asked whether he thought his close relationship with David Cameron was causing problems. He replied: “Standing next to someone who isn’t ‘one of us’ is exactly what pluralism is about. I am not going to apologise for my part in making this a successful government.
“As a party of pluralism we have wanted for generations to put an end to the old pendulum politics of blue-red.
“You cannot do that without taking risks.”