Lib Dems bask amid blue skies three years on from nightmare

Liberal Democrat  leader Nick Clegg is greeted by party supporters as he arrives for his party's Spring Conference at the Barbican Centre, York.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is greeted by party supporters as he arrives for his party's Spring Conference at the Barbican Centre, York.
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IT is almost three years to the day since the Liberal Democrats were last in Yorkshire for their annual spring conference.

The backdrop could hardly be more different.

Sheffield 2011 marked the nadir for a party which had seen its brief burst of popularity prior to the election evaporate over the months that followed, reeling from a wave of public anger over their decisions to support the Conservatives’ austerity measures and break their pledge not to raise tuition fees.

More than £2m was needed that year for the sort of security measures usually reserved for world summits, as Nick Clegg hid behind a ring of steel in Sheffield City Hall while thousands of protesters marched outside.

Fast-forward three years, and York 2014 must feel like a different world for the Lib Dem leader.

Outside the Barbican Centre, the yellow daffodils around the city walls are bursting into bloom beneath piercing blue skies.

Relaxing inside, Mr Clegg is upbeat as he speaks confidently of his party’s chances of remaining in Government beyond 2015.

“I think if you compare the mood to the last time we had a Yorkshire conference, it is transformed,” Mr Clegg says, allowing himself a rueful laugh.

“If you think back to the controversy, the anger, the mass protests which surrounded the early decisions we had to take – that was a very difficult time.

“We had to hold our nerve. And it is a source of endless pride to me that we did.”

Mr Clegg admits he feels “vindicated” for the decisions he took in those early days of the coalition.

The partnership with the Conservatives has proved surprisingly durable; the feared spike in unemployment never happened, despite huge public sector cuts; crucially, the economy is at last beginning to motor.

“We have had an up and down time of it over the last few years,” he says, perhaps understating his party’s rollercoaster fortunes just a tad.

“But I hope that even people who were not happy that we entered into coalition in the first place would at least recognise we’ve been resilient, we held our nerve – and that by doing so we’ve pointed the country towards a brighter future.”

Despite his critics, the Sheffield MP insists history will judge him kindly for helping to provide the strong Government Britain needed in a time of crisis.

“I was very clear in my own mind that given the country was teetering on the edge of a precipice back in 2010, we had no choice but to step up to the plate,” he says.

“If we hadn’t done so, and there had been another election, and a long period of political instability, I genuinely think – and the history books will recognise – that this country could have fallen down a precipice. I couldn’t have carried that on my conscience. That’s people’s jobs, people’s livelihoods, people’s homes.”

His own job now is to convince voters that, as the economy picks up, they have his party to thank.

“Without us holding our nerve, we wouldn’t have this recovery,” he insists. “We wouldn’t have more people in work, we wouldn’t have more people optimistic about their futures; and we wouldn’t have the big tax cuts – a £700 cut for 20 million people.”

Having promised it in Opposition, the raising of the income tax threshold to £10,000 remains the Lib Dems’ single biggest achievement in Government.

Mr Clegg’s greatest passion, however, is social mobility – and specifically education. He is closely involved with the coalition’s review of schools funding, launched a year ago with promises to end the historic disparities which left many rural schools underfunded.

One year on, however, it is clear a solution has not been found.

“We’re actively looking at it,” he says. “But I’m not going to hide the fact it’s difficult to do and has eluded previous Governments.”

The problem, he says, is “the moment you address one imbalance, you risk creating another.”

It is this issue that has worried Labour Party figures, who fear Tories want to use the review to take money from inner city areas and pour it into the Tory-supporting shires – ultimately moving funding from North to South.

But this, the Deputy Prime Minister says, is out of the question.

“I won’t let that happen,” he says. “It has got to be fair.”

It seems the deadlock may mean wholesale reform is ultimately kicked into the long grass.

“We might not be able to do this in one go,” Mr Clegg says. “There might be some early steps we can take to start dealing with some of the most egregious shortcomings, but not introduce wholesale a new system of funding from scratch.”

Such are the difficulties of governing by coalition.

Mr Clegg expects, nonetheless, that his party will be returned to power in another coalition next year. But he is running out of time to win those lost voters back.

“It was always going to be a risky thing for the party to move from the comfort of Opposition,” Mr Clegg says.

“But we’ve got a good story to tell – we’ve got a lot to be proud of. We’ve just got to go out and tell it.”