Page last updated at 21:00 GMT, Sunday, 20 September 2009 22:00 UK

Clegg's mixed messages?

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News, Lib Dem conference

Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg has said "savage" cuts may be needed

Once upon a time, the precursor of the Liberal Democrats were known as the "alliance" - but the party's current leader seems keener to burn, rather than build bridges, with other politicians.

For the past year Nick Clegg has been denouncing the Labour government but this weekend he has decided to turn his fire on the Conservatives - describing David Cameron as a "conman" and his policies variously as "phoney" or "fake".

The difficulty Mr Clegg has is in addressing the perennial question facing the third party in UK politics - what do they stand for?

They have gone from being "equidistant" between the two main parties to trying to build a "progressive century" with Labour to, now, apparently, a position of "a plague on both your houses".

They have been in coalition with Labour in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in recent years yet they have also shared power with the Conservatives in some of the big English local authorities such as Leeds and Birmingham.

Seeking clarity

So at what is the party's final conference before a general election, Mr Clegg's task is surely to bring clarity to the Lib Dem message.

Yet in many ways their policies appear less well defined than at the time of the 2005 general election.

Then they were the "real alternative" - the only mainstream party to oppose the Iraq war; to advocate free care for the elderly; to promise to tax high incomes at 50p in the pound; and - at that time, along with the Conservatives - to abolish student fees in England.

Now, of course, Britain is all but out of Iraq; the pledge on elderly care has been watered down a little; the 50p top rate is now Labour policy just as it's been ditched by the Lib Dems; and on Saturday, Mr Clegg raised a question mark over the tuition fees commitment on the grounds of cost.

There is not a feeling that the people populating the conference hall are ready to go back to their constituencies to prepare for government
Iain Watson

So what has replaced all the policies that have been, or are in the process of being, sent on their way?

Well, the one area where the Lib Dems have scored well over the years is their reputation for honesty - especially their willingness to talk about tax rises. Now they will hope they will get accolades for straight talking over spending cuts.

Mr Clegg talks of "serious and bold" cuts that will go beyond trimming quangos and cutting bureaucracy.

And he has provided far more detail already than the other parties over what he would slice, given the chance.

But his internal critics say that much of his policy making is not thought-through - that much of the detailed work that should lie behind a headline simply is not undertaken.

That may or may not be true but it seems that if you ask any two Lib Dem frontbenchers a question you get two different answers.

Reacting to the news that the Schools Secretary Ed Balls wanted to cut £2bn from the schools budget, Nick Clegg said it was "absolute madness to blight the life chances of the young".

But his treasury spokesman Vince Cable told the BBC that nothing in the education budget, frontline staff included, could be sacrosanct when it comes to cuts.

Protecting services

In truth, these positions can be reconciled. Just about.

Nick Clegg believes the budget of the education department overall can be cut, without hitting schools - so he attacked the government for specifically reducing spending on schools.

Mr Cable would also cut departmental overheads while seeking to protect schools from cuts but does not want to guarantee protecting individual posts. But just look at how long it has taken to explain that.

The Lib Dems have a more subtle message than before and, while on most issues, they may not have deep divisions over policy it nonetheless seems they have not yet agreed a coherent script amongst themselves.

And it will not be long before political opponents -probably unfairly - leap on differences of emphasis to suggest confusion and splits.

But there is a further problem.

Ed Balls
Ed Balls wants to cut 2bn from the schools budget

It is not the language of protecting public services which invokes the most emotive language from the Lib Dem leadership - the most lurid terminology is reserved for cuts - whether "bold" in Nick Clegg's words, or "savage" in the words of his chief of staff Danny Alexander.

So there is a danger that although Mr Clegg has told colleagues privately he does not want to don a hair shirt, one of the few clear messages that emerge from the Lib Dem conference is that the party would rather slash than spend.

Now that message hasn't exactly roused the masses here in Bournemouth.

Although the Lib Dems are on around a respectable 19 points in the polls - and support tends to increase during general election campaigns when they get more attention - there is not a feeling that the people populating the conference hall are ready to go back to their constituencies to prepare for government.

Indeed some MPs are still in their constituencies, and not here at all, as they face - to coin a phrase - a "savage" battle against opponents in their marginal seats.

Now, in fairness, a message from the leadership about tough choices is always going to be a difficult sell.

But there seems to be genuine dismay that Nick Clegg specifically raised the possibility that the policy to scrap tuition fees might have to be abandoned because it would cost billions of pounds.

A wide ranging conference motion on globalisation on Sunday included a line recommitting the party to scrapping fees and was passed.

Affordability test

But now all policies will be subject to an "affordability" test before they are allowed to enter the hallowed pages of the next manifesto.

Evan Harris, the Oxford West and Abingdon MP who has a high number of students in his constituency has told Nick Clegg he will not get support from the party's supreme policy making body, the Federal Policy Committee to ditch the tuition fees pledge.

So the message from the conference to the wider electorate on this most totemic of issues is that the LibDems would really, really like to get rid of fees but they cant tell voters they will actually do it.

So perhaps if Mr Clegg wants to lash out at the other two main UK parties, and to attract more people to his banner, he may well need not simply to change policy since the last election but more clearly explain where, and why, his party is distinctive now.

And his critical friends in Lib Dem ranks say that he should single the party out as the most enthusiastic cutters and trimmers at Westminster.

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