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Last Updated: Monday, 14 January 2008, 15:12 GMT
Clegg's orange revolution
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

The debate which once threatened to divide the Liberal Democrats is over - buried by new leader Nick Clegg.

Nick Clegg
Mr Clegg's speech has not sparked an internal rift

In his first major speech since winning the job, Mr Clegg has pretty much adopted the agenda set out in the controversial Orange Book, authored by party frontbencher David Laws and others (including Mr Clegg himself) in 2004.

The book included essays which demanded a return to what was claimed were the basic liberal values of free trade and the effectiveness of the private sector.

But by suggesting a greater role for private firms in the public services, the so-called "orange bookers" sparked an internal row with those in the party advocating what many saw as a more left-wing agenda.

Once again, that centre ground of British politics is seeing three parties offering similar rhetoric
Nick Assinder

That group, led by the likes of party president Simon Hughes, suggested their opponents were going down a Conservative path at a time when the party needed to attract disillusioned Labour voters.

One of former leader Charles Kennedy's probable successes was refusing to settle the argument in either side's favour.

Indeed, before the last election, the Lib Dems were regularly accused of veering to the left of Labour on issues like tax rises and opposition to growing private sector involvement in health and education.

Charles Kennedy
Mr Kennedy let the internal debate run

And, when Mr Kennedy stood down as leader, there was a leadership contest with candidates representing both factions.

Just two years later, when the victor of that contest Sir Menzies Campbell (not from either wing) quit the job, there was no such contest - all the likely candidates, including the two who finally ran, were orange bookers.

Now Mr Clegg has delivered his first keynote speech advocating a huge increase in private sector involvement in schools and the health service.

He stated: "Marrying our proud traditions of economic and social liberalism, refusing to accept that one comes at the cost of the other - on that point, if not all others, the controversial Orange Book in 2004 was surely right."

He set out a new "liberal manifesto" for his party which included the creation of non-selective "free schools" financed by just about anybody - parents, charities or voluntary and private organisations

Tory voters

He suggested radical reform of the NHS, allowing patients to be treated free in the private sector if the NHS could not provide treatment within a defined period.

He also made it plain he opposed tax increases, declaring: "The big questions now are these - how do we make Britain a fairer place without raising the overall tax burden? "

The fact that, as far as can be seen, his remarks have not caused a giant row or split within the party show just how much the Liberal Democrats have moved over the past couple of years.

Certainly there are elements of his manifesto, particularly on the social side and law and order, that will continue to appeal to wavering Labour voters - opposition to ID cards and nuclear power are just two examples.

And it is also the case that, if the party is not once again to fall victim to the old two party squeeze, Mr Clegg needs to appeal to Tory voters.

Indeed, some of the criticisms so far levelled at Mr Clegg's manifesto is that it attempts to steal the Tories' clothes - although he would undoubtedly argue he is only taking back the clothes that were his party's in the first place.

Once again, that centre ground of British politics is seeing three parties offering similar rhetoric, even similar policies and avoiding anything that looks like an ideological split.

What now remains to be seen is whether Mr Clegg can turn all this into a genuinely new, radical manifesto that will appeal to voters from both the other parties - and whether he can sell it to his own wider party.

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