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Last Updated: Sunday, 9 March 2008, 22:19 GMT
Pienaar's view: Clegg looks comfortable
By John Pienaar
BBC Radio 5 live chief political correspondent

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg: potential for political recovery

After a trying week, Nick Clegg has come through his first party conference looking surprisingly comfortable - almost relaxed - in the role of leader.

The party certainly seems comfortable with him. That kind of support gives a new leader confidence. He'll need it.

Even in his confident moments, Nick Clegg will understand that one reader of the BBC News website was not alone in deciding he (or she) would sooner read about the man who broke the world "hairy ears" record than anything at all about the Lib Dems.

True, the record holder's ear-tufts measured 25 centimetres, and needed regular combing. Fascinating.

But the reader's comment was, I suppose, another reminder of the difficulties facing any politician trying to grab the public's attention.

For many, many voters almost any issue is more compelling than party politics.

Battles ahead

The problem is magnified for the leader of Britain's third party, especially now the fight between Labour and the Conservatives has grown so intense.

The coming local elections will be tough. Staging a significant political recovery, raising his party much above the early teens in the opinion polls will be harder.

But judging by Mr Clegg's performance in Liverpool, he has a few good ideas to help him compete for attention with Labour and the Tories, perhaps even with the breaking news of a new "hairy ear" record.

Ruling out any possibility of a coalition with Labour or the Tories after the next election was unexpected. Opening the possibility of doing business with either was just as intriguing.

Many people may be impressed by the notion of a party prepared to foreswear the attractions of ministerial cars and salaries, just as the pollsters are prepared to speculate that the Lib Dems may, conceivably, hold the balance of power after the next election and find themselves able to dictate terms.

Appetite for reform

A radical overhaul of our political system, its voting system, its methods of law making, its relationship with the electorate, may appeal to a lot of voters.

A national mood for change can be powerful, and may not simply express itself in a shift of allegiance from one party to another. The Lib Dems have discovered their appetite for constitutional reform.

It was also encouraging for Mr Clegg to see his party so willing to be led, so hungry for a political recovery.

That might account for the fact that the Spring Conference swallowed, with barely a murmur, the idea of giving the private sector a defined role in healthcare, where the NHS fails to deliver on time. Previous Lib Dem conferences would not have been so accommodating.

There are limits, though, to the ability of any party to buck the electoral market. No political leader, it seems, can afford to ignore the interests and aspirations of the middle-class voters of middle Britain.

Vince Cable quietly dropped the idea of a 1% tax levy on homes worth more than a million pounds. Mr Clegg went further, floating the idea of tax cuts as a vague, but clearly stated policy option.

Skilled communicator

This was a rare opportunity for Mr Clegg to get his voice heard, and heeded, by the media without fear of being shouted down.

There won't be many such opportunities. And even when he is heard, he has work to do to convince the broader public to listen.

That is why last week's tangle over Europe, with 15 Lib Dem MPs defying his voting instructions and three front-bench spokesman resigning was damaging.

People are still forming their first impressions of Nick Clegg. The impression last week was not especially helpful.

The new Lib Dem leader is a highly skilled communicator. Often engaging and impressive on the TV and radio airwaves. He is capable of leading a political recovery.

That doesn't mean it will be easy, or, necessarily happen at all.

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