Nick Clegg ended the party conference season by giving the clearest signal so far that he is ready to do a deal with David Cameron for another five-year term of office. And he ruled out any prospect of breaking up the coalition before the May 2015 general election.
The Lib Dem leader suggested that he understood some in his party - many would say they are the majority – are critical of the coalition. “But that is not the same as washing our hands of the whole thing - that is something I will never do,” he said.
Clegg said he would not distance himself from the achievements of the coalition government – and even took a sideswipe at his strongest rival for the leadership, Vince Cable, who earlier in the week condemned David Cameron and the Tories as liars.
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“This government has provided the country with the political stability without which the economic recovery and hundreds of thousands of new jobs would never have materialised,” said Clegg.
“People know the truth. After the 2010 election, the Conservatives could not have formed a government and secured this economic recovery without the Liberal Democrats... and the Liberal Democrats could not have secured this economic recovery without the Conservatives.
“It’s called coalition – and in my judgment it is most likely Britain will have more in the future. I know that some of you find that hard to believe: Vince, you should tell us what you really think about the Tories.”
It was a high-risk ending to his keynote speech which will have dismayed many Lib Dems who are keen to fight the Tories and join sides with Labour. It risks splitting the party before or after the general election.
So, with his fighting talk and his much-advertised promise to improve funding for mental health care, Clegg made it clear he was here to stay – in the face of considerable speculation this morning that he was about to stand down as Lib Dem leader.
This had been triggered by the Daily Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges who claimed that the reason Clegg had appeared on the Glasgow conference platform earlier in the week dressed in jeans was because he no longer cared what people thought - he was about to resign.
“He’s relaxed,” wrote Hodges. “Dare I say, he even seems happy. That’s not because he thinks he’s got another five years coming to match the past five years. It’s because he knows the days of Cleggmania and Cleggphobia are coming to a close.”
As a result there was a flood of overnight bets and Paddy Power slashed the odds on Clegg not leading the Lib Dems into the general election from 13/2 to 2/1.
It didn’t stop there. When Clegg was 32 minutes late on stage for his speech today, Andrew Neil, host of the BBC’s Daily Politics show, joked that there must have been a coup. And a garbled BBC tweet stating “Nick Clegg was not executed on stage until 1320” went viral. (The reporter meant "expected” – but the predictive text thought otherwise.)
In the event, Clegg gave a bravura performance - probably his best since he made such an impression in the TV debates before the 2010 general election.
He left the door ajar to do a deal with Labour if they perform better than the Tories but are short of a majority in May – though he was scathing about Labour leader Ed Milband. “You may have forgotten what you did to our economy but the British people don't want a Labour Government to ruin our country.”
And for all the speculation about Clegg's leadership, it is Ed Miliband's stewardship of the Labour Party that is facing the most serious criticism from within.
Marcus Roberts, deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society, is the latest to warn Miliband he will lose the general election unless he ditches the so-called 35 per cent strategy – the calculated targeting of Labour's core vote in the belief that it will just be enough to win - and appeals to Middle England voters.
Of course, all this could change again with two by-elections being held tomorrow. If Labour win in Heywood and Middleton, and Tory defector Douglas Carswell wins Clacton to become the first Ukip MP, it will be Cameron's leadership that is under pressure.
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