Coalition: a term rarely heard in modern British politics before 2010 but, if Nick Clegg has his way, the formula for government for years to come. Clegg might have echoed his party’s determination to ensure it fights to win in 2015, but it was striking how clearly he pitched the Liberal Democrats as a coalition partner for the next Parliament – working alongside either the Tories or Lib Dems.
If there is a concern for Lib Dem activists, it will be that Clegg’s strong words on moderating the Conservatives (“Profit-making in schools – no. New childcare ratios – no. Firing workers at will, without any reasons given – no, absolutely not”) were almost too powerful. Positioning the Lib Dems between a Labour party that will “drive the economy to ruin” and a Tory party that “only cares about the rich” will resonate with many, but voters will also want to see a positive agenda that they can believe in.
Yet Clegg will be pleased with his performance today and over conference as a whole. Although the risk of his defeat in key votes was in reality minimal, successfully navigating them removed a possible headache. He’ll also be pleased that – apart from Lord Oakeshott – no senior party member publicly upset the Lib Dem apple cart. Rumblings from Business Secretary Vince Cable were mostly quashed by a successful pre-conference meeting of the Parliamentary party, where MPs voted not to change the party’s economic strategy. The Business Secretary did, however, notably state that the UK’s immigration policy looks anti-business, a line that’s directly at odds with the party’s coalition partners.
He’ll be slightly less pleased, however, with the reception his free school meals programme has received – although he’ll certainly find criticism from Conservatives heartening. A wide range of think tanks have questioned if making the benefit – currently only available to children in poverty – universally available is the best use of funds, arguing that it will disproportionally benefit middle class families. Clegg was keen to point out, however, that this policy was ‘fairer’ than what the Tories had negotiated in return: a tax cut for married couples.