Speaking at the culmination of a five-day conference which has been coloured darkly by his party’s sluggish poll ratings, the Lib Dem leader told his grassroots their fortunes will recover once the UK returns to prosperity, promising: “If we secure our country’s future, we will secure our own.”
The Deputy Prime Minister used his keynote address to rule out any further cuts to the top rate of tax before the next election, pledging any future changes will benefit those on low and middle incomes.
He also made clear that “green growth” in key industries such as offshore wind will be at the very heart of the UK’s recovery, slapping down “short-sighted” Conservatives who had failed to recognise the economic opportunity available from green energy.
But his key message to voters was that after decades on the sidelines, the Lib Dems are now a genuine party of Government, and the true occupiers of the centre ground – more fiscally credible than a discredited Labour but with a social conscience the Conservatives lack.
“Are you ready to trust Labour with your money again?” he asked.
“And do you really think the Tories will make Britain fairer?
“The truth is, only the Liberal Democrats can be trusted on the economy and relied upon to deliver a fairer society too.”
It has been a difficult week at times for Mr Clegg, with his popularity ratings low and his leadership questioned.
But he insisted his party can be “proud of our record” after two-and-a-half years in Government, and said there is no turning back as it moves from being a party of perpetual opposition to a party of government.
“The Liberal Democrats, it was said, are a party of protest, not power,” he said. “Well two years on, the critics have been confounded. Our mettle has been tested in the toughest of circumstances, and we haven’t been found wanting.
“The choice between the party we were, and the party we are becoming, is a false one. The past is gone and it isn’t coming back. There’s a better, more meaningful future waiting for us. Not as the third party, but as one of three parties of government.”
The biggest cheer of the afternoon was saved for Mr Clegg’s revelation that his close ally and former party leader Paddy Ashdown has been drafted in to lead the party’s general election campaign for 2015.
But in a speech which focused more on his own party’s positioning than on unveiling new policies, Mr Clegg’s most important announcement came on future tax policy.
Conscious of his party’s unrest at the Government’s decision to cut the top rate by 5p in the last Budget, the Deputy Prime Minister sent a strong message to those on the Right – led by Chancellor George Osborne – who believe a further reduction is required.
“Let me make one thing clear,” Mr Clegg said. “Now that we have brought the top rate of tax down to 45p … there can be no question of reducing it further in this Parliament. All future cuts in personal taxation must pass one clear test – do they help people on low and middle incomes get by and get on? It is as simple as that.”
Mr Clegg warned “there is no silver bullet” to secure Britain’s economic recovery and said that “further belt tightening” will be “inescapable.”
His response will be to push for new taxes on the rich such as Vince Cable’s “mansion tax” on expensive properties, and the curtailing of benefits for wealthy pensioners.
“The key question we will all have to answer is who will have to tighten their belts the most?” Mr Clegg said. “Our position is clear. If we have to ask people to take less out or pay more in, we’ll start with the richest and work our way down, not the other way around.
“We won’t waver in our determination to deal with our debts. But we will do it in our own way, according to our own plans, based on our own values.”
Pitching Lib Dems as “the party of education”, Mr Clegg confirmed the launch of a so-called ‘catch-up premium’ that will see struggling children get free private tuition when they start secondary schools to prevent them falling further behind.
And he had strong words for a Conservative Party which has been making increasingly vocal complaints about the subsidies being made available to kick-start
growth in the green energy industry. “Decarbonising our economy isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s a fantastic economic opportunity,” he said.
“The green economy in Britain is growing strongly right now, bringing in billions of pounds and creating thousands of jobs – in wind, solar and tidal energy; the technologies that will power our economy in the decades to come.
“Going green means going for growth. So let the Conservatives be in no doubt. We will hold them to their promises on the environment.”
The primary focus of Mr Clegg’s ire was Labour, however, and three times he scorned Ed Balls’s economic record and the “fantasy world” the Shadow Chancellor inhabits, “where there is no boom and bust and the money never runs out”.
Placing his party squarely in the centre ground between Mr Balls on the left and Conservative right-wingers such as Liam Fox, Mr Clegg said: “The idea that if Government just deregulated a bit more, as Liam Fox proposes, or borrowed and spent a bit more, as Ed Balls proposes, we would, at a stroke, achieve strong and lasting growth, is just not credible.
“In my experience, if you’re being attacked by Liam Fox from one side, and Ed Balls from the other, you’re in the right place.”
He said it was the poor who had suffered most in the economic crash and that it was Labour who were to blame.
“Who suffers most when governments go bust? When they can no longer pay salaries, benefits and pensions? Not the bankers and the hedge fund managers, that’s for sure. No, it would be the poor, the old, the infirm; those with the least to fall back on. Labour may have thought it was funny, after crashing the economy and racking up record debts, to leave a note saying ‘there’s no money left’. But it’s no joke for the most vulnerable in our society – the people Labour claim to represent but let down the most.
“So let’s take no more lectures about betrayal. It was Labour who plunged us into austerity and it is we, the Liberal Democrats, who will get us out.”
Labour were dismissive of Mr Clegg’s words, insisting the Lib Dem leader has lost the trust of the voters permanently over the tuition fee issue. Deputy leader Harriet Harman said: “There’s no reason why anyone should believe a word the Lib Dems say. The truth is that they have betrayed the people who voted for them.”