Like the whole of this Liberal Democrat conference, Nick Clegg’s speech to delegates did the job, but didn’t exactly lift the roof from the Brighton Centre. Those watching were happy: they applauded warmly and laughed at all the jokes (which hasn’t always been the case this week in Brighton), and they were utterly overjoyed when the Deputy Prime Minister announced that Paddy Ashdown will chair the party’s 2015 general election team.
He told members to ‘go for it’, and raised two laughs when he quoted Jo Grimond, saying that he could ‘see generations of Liberal marching towards the sound of gunfire. And yes, I see them going back to their constituencies to prepare for government.’ Behind these battle cries, running as a thread throughout the speech, was a concerted attack on Labour, and more specifically Ed Balls. The Olympians and Paralympians and Maurice Reeves, whose furniture shop was burnt down in the riots, did not survive as a theme throughout the speech beyond the introductory remarks. Instead the key theme was Labour. The Lib Dem leader told the party to take ‘no more lectures about betrayal’ because ‘it was Labour who plunged us into austerity and it is we the Liberal Democrats, who will get us out’.
Mocking the opposition’s approach to the economy, Clegg said:
‘Our journey from austerity to prosperity starts, of course, with economic rescue; dealing with our debts and delivering growth. If you listen to Labour, you could be forgiven for thinking that austerity is a choice; that the sacrifices it involves can be avoided; that if we only enacted Ed Balls’ latest press release we’d be instantly transported to that fantasy world where there is no ‘boom and bust’ and the money never runs out.’
Later he added:
‘Ranged against these forces, the idea that if government just deregulated a bit more as Liam Fox proposes, or borrowed and spent a bit more as Ed Balls proposes, we would, at a stroke, achieve strong and lasting growth, is just not credible. In my experience, if you’re being attacked by Liam Fox on one side, and Ed Balls from the other, you’re in the right place.’
And then later still, he trumpeted the Coalition’s achievement in retaining a top rate of tax ‘that is still higher than throughout Labour’s 13 years in office’. That’s not strictly true: the 50p rate was in place for 35 days of those 13 years, but it pleased the delegates, anyway. Clegg added that ‘there can be no question of reducing it further in this Parliament’. He told activists that when they campaigned in 2015, they should ask voters ‘are you ready to trust Labour with your money again? And do you really think the Tories will make Britain fairer?’ It’s quite early to be launching the slogan for 2015, but there it is.
What is clear from this is that Ed Balls represents a significant barrier to a future deal between the Lib Dems and Labour. It was highly significant that Ed Miliband was not mentioned once in the speech. These attacks weren’t just the normal knockabout between senior party figures: Clegg was saying that you cannot trust Ed Balls with the economy, and that the shadow chancellor lives in a ‘fantasy world’. When you attack someone’s basic competence so bluntly and repeatedly throughout a keynote speech like this, it is impossible to form a credible partnership with them. Labour may be hinting that Clegg’s head would be the price of a Lib-Lab pact: Clegg today made it clear that Balls could have the same significance for his party.