Sunday, 14 September 2008

Nick Clegg has the answers

Lib Dem federal party leader Nick Clegg gave an assured performance in the question and answer session at conference with Steve Richards of The Independent.

In the preliminary questions from Richards, Clegg spoke about how the job of party leader differed from his expectations, saying it was a more physically demanding task than he'd expected. He was then asked whether frustration with lack of media coverage had led to him taking too many risks in his first few months, to which Clegg replied firstly that while he was frustrated at the lack of national coverage of a party which got 6 million votes at the last election, he was concentrating on getting our message across through other channels and through regional media.

The first question from party members came from Linda Jack, who asked whether Clegg was in danger of being seen as Cameron-lite, particularly on taxes. Clegg's reply was to say there was a gulf in thought between him and Cameron, attacking him for what he called his 'juvenile approach' to foreign policy, as highlighted by his photo op in Tbilisi during the Georgian conflict. On tax, he pointed out that the Lib Dems were offering the most redistributive tax package of any major party, while noting that Cameron's only tax policy was on inheritance tax, which would only benefit wealthier people. He attacked the Tories 'trickle-down' approach, saying that he didn't think ordinary people should be trickled on.

The next question came from Bill Winlow, who asked whether environmental issues were still as important to the Lib Dems with the country facing recession. Clegg's response was to point out that in many cases taking action on the environment will actually help people to save money and that environmental concerns remained just as much a priority as before. He also highlighted that he believed the European elections offered an additional opportunity to shocase the party's concern for the environment. Pressed by Richards on whether economic issues were becoming more important than the environment, Clegg responded by attacking the 'over-leveraged' economic model in which there had been an explosion of credit, often lent by banks to people who could never afford to pay the money back, and said that the banks had lost their moral compass. Strong stuff, but very well put.

The next question was whether Lib Dem support for the Euro had faded. Clegg outlined that he believed Britain should still join the Euro at some stage, but said the matter was not on the political agenda right now, and also refused to say when it might come back on the agenda. In response to a follow-up question from Richards about the Lisbon Trety, Clegg acknowledged that it had been a difficult episode, but believed the party had handled it well. He repeated his support for an 'in-out' referendum on Europe, and gave his best line of the session when he said that David Cameron was intent on withdrawing from the main right-wing party in the European Parliament 'to go into bed with a bunch of nutters'. Excellent line.

The following question from Jeremy Ambash was on what Nick would want as his three best achievements by the time he steps down as Lib Dem leader. Clegg answered that he'd like to see Britain a fairer place, that he wanted to transform the political system and wanted to reconcile Britain to its European destiny.

And the final question was about whether Nick intended to take paternity leave when his wife gives birth to their third child next year, and more generally about making politics more family-friendly. Nick said that he would be taking paternity leave and added that although politics could never be entirely family-friendly, there was a lot more that could be done. He added that in the evenings he was fairly anti-social at Westminster, claiming that he would rather be at home reading a story to his kids than drinking with fellow MPs in Westminster.

Altogether, I thought this was a confident and assured performance from Nick, and he is clearly growing into the role of being leader.

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