The Deputy Prime Minister will hail the by-election victory in Eastleigh as proof that the Lib Dems can succeed as a party of government. He will also dismiss the “myth” that being in coalition has undermined their identity or ability to fight the Conservatives.
The rallying cry comes in a keynote speech to the Lib Dem Spring Conference in Brighton. The leadership has been eager to use the gathering to move on from damaging allegations of sexual harassment by Lord Rennard – which he denies – and the conviction of former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne, who faces jail tomorrow.
Clegg will round on critics who wrote the party’s “political obituaries” as the controversies threatened to overshadow the by-election campaign last month. “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 is expected to say.
“We beat the Tories. We squeezed Labour – don’t forget that bit. Why? Because, for the first time in a generation, we could campaign on our record of local delivery and our record of national delivery too. We didn’t win in Eastleigh in spite of being in power. We won in Eastleigh because we’re in power – locally and nationally.”
Clegg will concede that some Lib Dems had harboured “quiet fears” that coalition would do irreparable damage to the party. But he will insist that the risk can pay off at local elections in May and the next general election in 2015.
“There is a myth that governing together, in coalition, diminishes the ability of the smaller party to beat the bigger party – the idea that in Tory-facing seats the Liberal Democrats will find it impossible to distinguish our record, our values, from theirs,” Clegg is expected to say.
“But that myth has been utterly confounded. The opposite is true. The longer you stand side by side with your opponents, the easier your differences are to see. We don’t lose our identity by governing with the Conservatives. The comparison helps the British people understand who we are.”
Clegg will go on: “In the days after the by-election, even though we won, I was asked how I feel about our party no longer being a magnet for the protest vote.
“No longer the automatic ‘none-of-the-above’ choice. But the truth is: the Liberal Democrats are not a party of protest, we are a party of change. A party that is for things, not simply against things.
“A successful political party cannot thrive just by picking up the votes that have been lost by its opponents. We are not some kind of receptacle for people who don’t like the world – and don’t want to do anything about it. We strive to make it better.”
A spokesman for the Lib Dem leader said yesterday he was confident that the party could take seats off Labour and “particularly” the Tories at the next general election.
The Lib Dems dismissed polling by former Conservative donor Lord Ashcroft suggesting the party could lose as many as ten constituencies to Labour – pointing out that the peer’s research predicted they would lose Eastleigh.
The spokesman also played down the idea that Business Secretary Vince Cable’s call for higher capital spending funded by more borrowing was part of efforts to differentiate the Lib Dems from their coalition partners.
Yesterday, during his question and answer session in the hall, Clegg was attacked by a number of activists over so-called secret courts legislation. One delegate asked him: “How can we call ourselves a Liberal Democratic party any more if we vote for this legislation?”
In tetchy exchanges, Clegg insisted there was friction between what the party wanted and what he could deliver in parliament with just 8 per cent of MPs being Lib Dems. “It is arithmetically impossible for me to deliver your will unalloyed,” he said.
The session got off to a rocky start when Clegg accidentally referred to the “good work Ed Balls is doing” when he meant to praise Energy Secretary Ed Davey. He went on to inadvertently suggest that Cable was among “millionaire” pensioners who should be stripped of free bus passes. Towards the end Clegg joked: “This Q&A is turning into a riot.”