Page last updated at 14:57 GMT, Sunday, 14 March 2010

Clegg: Liberal Democrats offer voters real change

Nick Clegg: "I am not the kingmaker"

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg says a vote for his party at the coming general election is "a bold commitment to hope and opportunity".

He told the party's spring conference that the election, widely expected on 6 May, was "a once in a generation opportunity for real change".

Mr Clegg insisted a vote for his party would not be a wasted vote.

But ministers said the next government would be Labour or Conservative. The Tories claimed Mr Clegg was "confused".

The BBC's political correspondent Mike Sergeant said Mr Clegg used his speech to activists in Birmingham to set out the big themes of his election campaign, discussing his plans to reform tax, education, the economy and Parliament.

He accused Labour of being the party of "many disasters" and said the government lacked the "courage and honesty" to take tough action to reduce the UK's huge fiscal deficit.

Mike Sergeant
By Mike Sergeant, BBC political correspondent, in Birmingham
This speech was about trying to give party members a relatively simple message to sell on the doorsteps.

In previous elections, the Lib Dems have been criticised for presenting a long shopping list of pledges, so Mr Clegg has been trying to boil things down to a more credible programme.

In recent months, he has been junking cherished policies and pushing other things into the distant future. And indeed, this speech was notable for what it didn't contain.

Nothing on Afghanistan. No mention of tuition fees. Barely a word on the NHS. Less on the environment than you might expect.

Party members think they now have a clear and coherent set of policies. Labour and the Tories, of course, see only confusion and contradiction.

As for being the "kingmaker"? Nick Clegg is keeping his options open. Lib Dems know it would be disastrous to campaign for a hung parliament, however much some might want one.

His attacks on the Conservatives included the role of party donor and deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft, who recently admitted being non-domiciled in the UK for tax purposes.

Mr Clegg called the Tories "the world's first offshore political party".

"With these two old parties, it is a dismal choice between the party of the few and the party of no-one," he said.

"A choice between the wrong direction and backwards."

Mr Clegg said claims that people would be wasting their time by voting Lib Dem were "nonsensical".

And he claimed the Lib Dems were "the guarantor of good sense" who had set out "the most substantial and deliverable programme of deficit reduction in British politics".

Mr Clegg has said previously that his party "would say no" to any plans to slash public spending in the first year of a new Parliament, and instead would reduce public spending "sensibly".

But shadow work and pensions secretary Theresa May told the BBC Mr Clegg was showing "a certain degree of confusion" about his position on spending cuts.

"He seemed to say last week that he supported our view that we need to act now on debt, and now he seems to be saying, 'No we don't need to do that.'

"The Liberal Democrats just can't make up their mind about where they want to be."

'Not the kingmaker'

In recent weeks, the Lib Dem leader has come under intense pressure to say whether he would work with Labour or the Tories in the event of a hung parliament.

But he told the conference he was "not the kingmaker".

"Some days I read we're planning a deal with Labour, some days that we're planning a deal with the Conservatives, other days that we'll refuse to talk to anyone at all.

"This election is a time for voters to choose, not a time for politicians to play footsie with each other.

A fairer tax system
A better education for all children
A new, greener economy
A clean, open, fair politics

"The party with the strongest mandate from voters will have the moral authority to be the first to seek to govern, and voters are entitled to know what Liberal Democrats will do - in whatever situation we find ourselves in."

International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander refused to be drawn on a possible Labour-Lib Dem alliance.

But he told the BBC: "The serious point is this. There is a big choice coming up in this election and it's who's going to be the government of the country.

"Nick Clegg really struggled to deal with that reality - that it will ultimately either be David Cameron standing on the steps of Downing Street or Gordon Brown standing on the steps of Downing Street."

Mike Sergeant said Mr Clegg was playing down talk of a coalition in case it hampered his party's campaign.

"The merest suggestion of a cosy pre-election arrangement with either party would be disastrous for Lib Dem activists in extremely close local campaigns," our correspondent said.

The Lib Dems have listed their broad demands for supporting a minority administration, which could occur if no single party wins enough seats to form an overall majority in Parliament.

The demands include the reform of the tax system, more spending on education for poorer children, a switch to a greener economy and political reform in Westminster.

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