NICK Clegg urged Liberal Democrats to turn their fire on the Tories, as he attempted to draw a line under damaging scandals and build on the Eastleigh by-election victory.
The Deputy Prime Minister mocked his coalition partners for veering to the right like a “broken shopping trolley” after a disastrous showing in the contest, and promised to keep them in check.
Buoyed by the party’s win in the Eastleigh by-election last week, Mr Clegg used his keynote speech at the Lib Dem spring conference to claim their record in government is an asset.
The attack on his Tory coalition partners came as the government’s economic policy came under renewed pressure to change from business groups.
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) called for money to be reallocated to boost growth and stop the economy stagnating.
It called for “modest” proposals to shift £2.2 billion – equal to only 0.3 per cent of public spending – from current spending to high-growth areas, such as house building.
But Mr Clegg made clear that there was no chance of borrowing more to kick-start the economy, despite calls from Business Secretary Vince Cable and some party members.
The Lib Dem leadership spent the weekend trumpeting the solid performance in Eastleigh. But they have also been forced to engage in damage limitation over allegations of sexual harassment by former chief executive Lord Rennard – which he denies – and the conviction of ex-Cabinet minister Chris Huhne.
Mr Clegg said the Lib Dems were no longer a “receptacle for people who don’t like the world”.
“We grapple with the world. We strive to make it better. And the more people who see that, all the better too,” he added.
He hit out at Tory voices attempting to push the Prime Minister to the right, saying his coalition partners were delivering “bizarre mixed messages”.
The Lib Dem leader singled out Home Secretary Theresa May – touted as a successor to Mr Cameron – for suggesting Britain could leave the European Convention on Human Rights.
“The Conservative Party knows it needs to stay on the centre ground to have any chance of speaking to ordinary people’s concerns,” he said.
“At least the leadership seem to. But they just can’t manage it, no matter how hard they try.
“They’re like a kind of broken shopping trolley. Every time you try and push them straight ahead, they veer off to the right-hand side.”
He attacked Ms May’s speech, in which she suggested the UK could leave the European Convention of Human Rights.
To applause, he told delegates: “It won’t be on the Cabinet table so long as I’m sitting round it. ”
Mr Clegg’s speech was aimed at lifting the spirits of a party at a low in the opinion polls, languishing on 8 per cent. Party members have been unhappy with what it has done in government, including tripling tuition fees, NHS reforms and cutting taxes for the rich.
They had voted to oppose another coalition policy of creating secret courts. Two prominent lawyers, Jo Shaw and Dinah Rose, resigned their party memberships in protest at his “car crash”
handling of the legislation.
But speaking about the by-election result, Mr Clegg said they had reasons for hope: “The odds were stacked against us.
A fierce campaign … under a national spotlight, dogged by difficult headlines from day one.
“Extraordinary circumstances. Yet we still won.”
He told delegates: “Get back out there. Tell our side of the story. And we will win again.
“Keep fighting for what we believe in. Keep winning. Building a stronger economy, a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.”