NICK Clegg will seek to soothe anxious Liberal Democrats in Sheffield today after they dealt him a sharp rebuke over the coalition’s controversial NHS reforms.
The last day of the conference was due to begin at 9am and Clegg will deliver his main speech around 11.45am.
The Deputy Prime Minister and Sheffield Hallam MP will emphasis his party’s distinct identity, claiming to be neither of the Left nor Right but governing “from the middle for the middle”.
Activists at the Lib Dem spring conference at Sheffield City Hall overwhelmingly passed a motion yesterday condemning proposals for putting GPs in charge of commissioning services.
Speaker after speaker demanded a rethink, with party doyenne Baroness Shirley Williams branding the changes “lousy” and backbencher Andrew George insisting the Lib Dems should not be “the architects of (the NHS’s) demise”.
John Pugh MP said the reforms would create the “biggest quango in the country”, and only Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley thought they were a good idea.
Mr Clegg played down the heavy defeat during a question and answer session with members later, insisting “almost all” the amended motion went “with the grain” of the Government’s reforms.
“I am now going to look at it in considerable detail,” he said. “Because I think a lot of what we have talked about this weekend - greater accountability, greater transparency, making sure we don’t have a wilful disruptive approach to diversity of providers and don’t allow the profit motive and price competition to run a coach and horses through the NHS - that’s precisely what is happening.”
However, the vote will increase the pressure on the leadership to try to water down the proposals and reduce the scope for private sector involvement in health provision.
Mr Clegg dismissed noisy protests outside the venue that forced at least one fringe event to be moved back inside the secure zone.
And he also mounted a somewhat tetchy defence of the compromises he had made to enter coalition with the Tories.
“I am not going to make any apology for playing my part in making this a successful government,” he said. “You either accept as a party of pluralism that has wanted for generations to put an end to the old pendulum politics of blue, red, blue, red...you cannot do that without taking risks.”
Mr Clegg said he had been approached by one activist at an event on Friday who urged him to look happier when he was with David Cameron, and another who had told him not to smile so much. “Make your minds up!” he insisted.
Before taking the next question, the party leader added combatively: “Now, who else wants some more of that?”
Responding to a student who asked how he should explain the tuition fee hike to his friends, Mr Clegg bluntly replied: “We were really stuffed on this one. We were isolated because both other parties, Labour and the Conservatives, agreed more with each other than they did with us.
“Even if we had gone into coalition with Labour fees would have gone up.”
Meanwhile, Business Secretary Vince Cable admitted to worries about how many universities want to charge high tuition fees.
He suggested “uncertainty” over the coalition’s crackdown on visas for overseas students was encouraging institutions to push up levies.
However, he said he hoped “most” would stay below the new £9,000 maximum.
The comments at a fringe event came after a string of universities - including Oxford, Cambridge and Exeter - signalled they intended to charge the top rate.
In his keynote speech to the conference this afternoon, Mr Clegg will resurrect his “Alarm Clock Britain” phrase to describe the Lib Dems’ core voters.
They are the people who are “proud to support themselves, but are only ever one pay cheque away from their overdraft”, according to the party leader.
“People who believe in self-reliance but who don’t want to live in a dog-eat-dog world,” he added.
“In government, especially in difficult times, it is more important than ever to know whose side you are on.
“When money is tight you have to make choices. And the only way to get them right is to know who you are making those choices for.”
He will add: “Our opponents try to divide us with their outdated labels of left and right.
“But we are not on the left and we are not on the right. We have our own label: Liberal. We are Liberals and we own the freehold to the centre ground of politics.
“Governing from the middle for the middle.”