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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 March 2008, 15:54 GMT
Lib Dem verdict on Clegg's speech
By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg had to make the speech of his life if he was going to bury the past week's rows over the EU treaty that have split his MPs.

Christopher Leslie
Christopher Leslie: 'Three line whip was a mistake'

And the consensus among delegates leaving Liverpool's new indoor arena - the cavernous venue chosen for the party's spring conference - was that he had done just that.

Most argued - as party loyalists tend to in these situations - that the media had made too much of the row in the first place.

But a surprising number were openly critical of Mr Clegg's decision to order his MPs to abstain with a "three line whip" - even if, they argued, it could be put down to inexperience.

"I don't think it has damaged confidence among the membership - it was a mistake but I don't think it was fatal. Luckily, the other parties had problems too," said Mr Leslie.

Comfort zone

Mr Leslie voted for Mr Clegg's rival Chris Huhne three months ago in the party leadership contest.

But he says he has been won over by Mr Clegg's charisma and enthusiasm - and his ability to speak for nearly an hour without notes.

Ros Weston
Ros Weston: Kind of speech Labour should be making

"I think Chris Huhne would have delivered the same message on Europe but he wouldn't have done it in the same way," he said.

Delegates rejected any suggestion that Mr Clegg may have taken a leaf out of Tory leader David Cameron's book by choosing to roam the conference stage without even the comfort zone of a lectern.

Lib Dem party worker Ben Japhcott said he had not been convinced Mr Clegg had lived up to the promise he had shown earlier in his career during the leadership campaign.

But he said he had been converted to the Clegg cause by his ability to enthuse an audience and his obvious intelligence.

"I think he is growing into the job. There was no way Chris Huhne could have delivered that speech today - and made it look so easy. It is quite clear Nick was the right man for the job."

Tim Pollard said: "Leadership isn't easy but I think he does it very well."

Ben Japhcott
Ben Japhcott: Convinced by Clegg's performance

He said the challenge for the party, as always with the Lib Dems, was "to make your voice heard".

And he applauded Mr Clegg's efforts to get out of the "Westminster bubble".

"He is already spending a lot more time in the country and that will have an effect over time," he added.

One of the key themes of Mr Clegg's speech was to stress the independence of the party - and its equidistance from Labour and the Conservatives.

But Ros Weston, who says she quit Labour for the Lib Dems over the Iraq war, was in little doubt which side of the fence he was on.

"It was like one of the best Labour messages from 15 years ago," she said.

"He set out the direction the country needs to go - but if we are really honest it should be Labour saying these things."

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