Page last updated at 16:10 GMT, Wednesday, 23 September 2009 17:10 UK

Clegg's proposal to voters

By Gary O'Donoghue
BBC political correspondent, in Bournemouth

Mr Clegg and his wife Miriam
It was a big day in more ways than one for Mr Clegg

It is probably not everyone's idea of how best to spend your wedding anniversary but Nick Clegg passed the day not so much wooing Miriam (his wife of nine years) but the voters of Britain.

So in his speech he practically went down on one knee to make a direct appeal to the disillusioned and the undecided, as he tries to position his party as the vanguard of the progressive centre left - the natural successors to Labour who, he says, are finished.

There was no talk of coalitions, of hung Parliaments, of pacts or deals - but there was a clear statement of his desire to be prime minister and change Britain for good.

And if that has you chortling a little, he does suggest it could take half a lifetime to realise such an ambition.

There were emollient words on tuition fees and a semi-apology to the frontbenchers who didn't like the way the 'mansion tax' was announced.

In the meantime his strategy is clear.

To demonstrate to the electorate that his party has grown up.

To demonstrate that it is no longer the party that would tax and spend like there was no tomorrow, that it's no longer the party that passes daft motions like the banning of goldfish as prizes at fairgrounds (though oddly, that seems now to be law).

And to demonstrate that the Lib Dems are the only party to offer "real" change in contrast to Conservative leader David Cameron's "fake" change.

So will it work?

Much of the commentary around this week's conference has centred on the various rows Nick Clegg has got himself into.

Tuition fees

First the talk of "savage cuts" in public spending, second the idea that the much cherished policy of scrapping tuition fees might not be affordable and finally the so-called mansion tax - soaking the rich to help take four million people out of tax altogether.

On each of these, he has appeared to trim a little. "Savage cuts" became "serious cuts", there were emollient words on tuition fees and a semi-apology to the frontbenchers who did not like the way the "mansion tax" was announced.

But in truth these little spats and semi-retreats may have done the Lib Dem leader more good than harm.

Afghanistan is not Iraq, but his ending of the political consensus, as he puts it, could well reap dividends, at least in narrow electoral terms.

If your boiled-down message is "credible on spending and fair on taxation", as one staffer put it, then the rows communicate that idea firmly to the electorate.

And there is another thing.

Nick Clegg is determinedly trying to carve out a new distinctive position for his party on Afghanistan.

It is significant that he began today's speech with the issue, over and above everything else.

He knows that the public mood has begun to change as the numbers of British casualties rise.

Difficult balance

He knows that the clear position the party took over Iraq was an unqualified success politically.

Now Afghanistan is not Iraq, but his ending of the political consensus, as he puts it, could well reap dividends, at least in narrow electoral terms.

But his big worry is that with Labour so unpopular, the signs that voters are turning to him should be becoming apparent by now.

Instead it is the fringe parties which have started to pick up points in the polls.

Despite emerging relatively unscathed from the recent MPs' expenses scandal, the Lib Dems have not yet demonstrated that they are the natural home for those disgruntled voters who believe the system requires major change.

It is a difficult balance to strike - appearing sober and sensible on issues like tax and spending but sufficiently radical and fresh, so you are not to be lumped in with the rest.

This courtship of the voters could still have nine months to run, so probably enough time to squeeze Mrs Clegg in for dinner tonight.

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