NICK Clegg, in his closing Lib Dems’ Spring Conference speech in Sheffield, promised to protect the soul of the party - as he joked he had not been kidnapped by PM David Cameron, writes Digital Editor Graham Walker.
The Deputy Prime Minister’s comments came after 5,000 protesters demonstrated outside the venue and vented their anger over key coalition policies.
VIDEO: Press the play button to watch video highlights of Mr Clegg’s closing speech at Sheffield City Hall.
FOR A FULL ROUND UP AND REACTION OF THE WEEKEND’S CONFERENCE AND PROTESTS SEE THE STAR ON MONDAY AND THE SHEFFIELD TELEGRAPH ON THURSDAY.
The Lib Dem leader and Sheffield Hallam MP admitted that the alliance with the Tories meant the party was being forced to back “decisions which aren’t exactly the ones we would make on our own”.
But he attempted to soothe anxious rank-and-file by insisting the party was not losing its identity in government - adding: “I haven’t changed one bit.”
Mr Clegg delivered the impassioned defence of his leadership in a 40-minute speech.
The gathering at Sheffield City Hall has overwhelmingly condemned radical plans for shaking up the NHS and reforming bank regulation. There has also been heavy criticism of the decision to U-turn on tuition fee hikes.
But despite the difficulties, Mr Clegg said it would have been wrong for the Lib Dems to cling to the “comfort blanket of opposition” - stressing achievements in securing tax cuts for the poorest, stronger civil liberties, and a referendum on the Alternative Vote.
Referring to reports that a criminal plot against him had led police to throw a £2 million ‘ring of steel’ around the conference, he joked that David Cameron had not “kidnapped me”.
“My life may have changed a fair bit since the last election. But 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.
“Yes, being in government 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.
“Making compromises, settling differences and going out to explain decisions which aren’t exactly the ones we would make on our own.
“But every single day I work flat out to make sure that what we are doing is true to our values.”
The Lib Dems had always been the party of “fairness, freedom, and progress and reform”, he added.
“We cherished those values in opposition. Now we are living by them in government.
“So yes, we have had to toughen up. But we will never lose our soul.”
The fact that the coalition was being criticised for being “strong and radical” had also disproved Tory claims before the election that a hung parliament would be a “horror show”, he said.
Mr Clegg resurrected his “Alarm Clock Britain” phrase in a bid to define 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, unlike the wealthy, have no choice but to work hard to make ends meet,” he added.
“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.”
Mr Clegg launched a series of furious attacks on Labour for underhand tactics and leaving the country’s finances in chaos.
He lambasted Labour-run Manchester council for cutting 2,000 jobs, suggesting they may be taking the drastic action to harm the coalition.
“Anyone who sacks a member of staff or shuts down a public service for political purposes is a disgrace to politics and a disgrace to Britain,” he added.
Mr Clegg - who last week said he wanted to “wring the necks” of bankers who caused the credit crunch - insisted the coalition was “fixing the banks”.
“We are going to take £10 billion more that Labour planned in tax off them this parliament,” he said. “We are making sure they lend £10 billion to ordinary business this year alone.”
Turning to tuition fees, Mr Clegg said it was “no secret” that the party had been unable to deliver its long-standing pledge to abolish charges for higher education.
“I know people deeply regret that,” he insisted. “But though we have been divided, we can now unite together, behind one clear mission: to make university access fair, fair for all.”
After Business Secretary Vince Cable admitted to “worries” that too many institutions wanted to levy the new top rate of £9,000 a year, the Deputy Prime Minister added: “Let me be clear to the universities: Open your doors or we will cut your fees back down to size.”
Labour frontbencher Caroline Flint, the Don Valley MP, dismissed Mr Clegg’s speech as “utterly meaningless”.
“The fact is that from Tuition Fees to the VAT rise, NHS reorganisation to free schools, and elected police commissioners to an immigration cap, the Tory policies Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats used to oppose are being pushed through by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats alike,” she said.
“Liberal Democrat activists are locked in the boot of a car travelling in the wrong direction - taken for a reckless ride by a Tory-led Government.”