The Lib Dem leader’s well delivered speech made a future civil partnership with Labour impossible. Or more accurately, Nick Clegg won’t be able to reconcile with Ed Miliband’s party. How do you make up having spat out the line: “Never, ever trust Labour with the economy again”? There were also the personal attacks on Miliband and Ed Balls “the two backroom boys”. While Clegg could not have backed away from the coalition’s number one purpose, restoring the economy, he swung a great axe down on any thin rope bridges built between his party and Labour.
The Liberal Democrats 2011-2015 have swung away from the red corner and it was noticeable that the attacks on the blues was restricted to the NHS and Human Rights Act – pretty tame stuff in all.
There was plenty on the martyrdom of being a Lib Dem in the speech, which Clegg indulged fully with violin moments such as: “For liberals, the litmus test is always the national interest. Not doing the easy thing. Doing the right thing”.
While this re-pitch as the ‘better party’ (a re-run of his highly successful first leaders’ debate during the election) will stick in the craw of many outside the Lib Dems, it does create an anti-establishment narrative and distance from their two larger rivals.
And this was added to by a positioning of the party in the centre, being attacked by two sides. “The Left accuse us of being powerless puppets, duped by a right wing Conservative clique. The Right accuse us of being a sinister left wing clique, who’ve duped powerless Conservatives.”
So the speech contained plenty about what the Lib Dems are defining themselves against. But what did Clegg tell us his party was for? There were standard platitudes, “justice, optimism, freedom”, and his most personal section of the speech later on: “I have a simple, unquenchable belief: That every child can do good things, great things if only we give them the opportunities they deserve.”
But hanging over the whole speech was the decision to go into government. This was Clegg’s defence of choosing to enter into coalition with a party that senior Lib Dems decry in the strongest terms. The Lib Dem leader’s speech wasn’t a grand layout of radical ideas but it went some way to explaining the defiance of the party. The centre ground for Nick Clegg was coming to his country’s aid. It reminded me of Tony Blair's 'scars on my back' language, albeit in different circumstances. The speech, ultimately, was an attempted reassurance that the coalition was the right idea.