It’s hard to know quite what to make of Nick Clegg’s speech
just now. It never really soared as a piece of oration, but he skipped quite expertly across all the issues that might concern, delight and enliven a Lib Dem audience. And so we heard about how much the Lib Dems are contributing towards government; about how the cuts are a prerequisite for fairness; and about how the party will maintain its independence. On the whole, this was coalition politics shaded yellow. But Clegg managed to drop in a few unadulterated sweeteners for his audience – including a dig at the “still illegal” Iraq War. The overall response was warmer than he might have expected
If there was any element of the speech worth dwelling upon, then it was probably Clegg’s argument on the public finances. Here, he managed to do something new – and, in doing so, turned the “investment vs cuts” argument on its head. His point was simple: that delaying fiscal retrenchment only means more debt interest payments now, which would be money better spent on public services in future. Or as he put it: “Everyday, we could spend £120 million on servicing our debt – but that’s £120 million less for our children to spend on hospitals, policing or schools.” He may have been a bit overconfident in claiming that “our debt problems” would be “sorted” by the end of the Parliament, but the basic thrust of his argument was persuasive enough.
In the end, I suppose it’s Mission Accomplished for Nick Clegg. As he jets of to New York, he has made all the points he wanted to make – and he has made them fairly well. Some of his Tory colleagues might be concerned by the tone he adopted on certain issues. But coalition was always going to be a bit of a Janus act: different emphases for different audiences.