If you want to know what the Liberal Democrat’s message at the next election will be, read Nick Clegg’s speech to the party’s Spring Conference today. He kept to the refrain that the Liberal Democrats are for a stronger economy and a fairer society and you can’t trust the Tories with society or Labour with the economy.
In a sign of the new, more disciplined Lib Dem machine there were no detours from this core theme. Listening to Clegg, you would have had no idea that the leadership had lost a vote on secret courts this morning.
Clegg knows that his internal position hasn’t been this strong since the Liberal Democrats entered coalition. Those around Clegg can barely disguise their delight that Vince Cable’s two interventions on the economy haven’t shaken the party to its foundations. This is, in large part, thanks to the Eastleigh effect. This by-election win has done wonders in terms of reassuring the party. Indeed, at the end of his speech today Clegg was joined on stage not by his wife Miriam but by Mike Thornton, the winner of Eastleigh.
There’s also a certain satisfaction that it is the Tories whose unity is under the meda spotlight. Clegg joked that they were
“…like a kind of a broken shopping trolley. Every time you try and push them straight ahead they kind of veer off to the right”…
Clegg also relished taking a swipe at Theresa May, who he has always found personally difficult, for her speech yesterday. Suggesting that Britain withdraws from the ECHR, he said, is…
“not a lurch to the right, that’s a swerve all the way towards Minsk”
Above all, though, today’s speech was meant to mark a change in the Liberal Democrat mindset. Clegg wanted to persuade them that the defensive part of coalition has now ended and that they’re now in a position to go on the offensive. It’s a brave message to deliver to a party that’s too often polling at single digits in the polls, but it is one that Eastleigh has made credible.