Nick Clegg has moved to calm grassroots Liberal Democrat concerns over joining the Tories in government with a pledge to start 2011 with activist-pleasing action on social mobility, civil liberties and the environment.
In a New Year message to the membership, the Deputy Prime Minister conceded the party faced “testing times” although he made no direct reference to the embarrassing disclosures of disparaging remarks about Tory coalition partners by a succession of Lib Dem ministers.
And he launched a renewed defence of the decision to break a pledge to oppose rises in student tuition fees and back drastic spending and benefit cuts – insisting he had delivered on “every single one and more” of the party’s general election priorities.
“Well what a year! A white-knuckle election; a new coalition government; Liberals in power for the first time in 70 years,” Mr Clegg wrote from Spain, where he is celebrating Christmas with his wife Miriam’s family.
“Just eight months ago we were campaigning on our four big manifesto priorities – fairer taxes; extra money for disadvantaged children in schools; a green, rebalanced economy; a new, open politics. And now we are delivering on every single one, and more.”
The controversial move to almost treble tuition fees, which saw the party’s MPs split three ways in a key Commons vote amid violent protests on the streets of the capital, was needed to retain “world class” universities and protect poorer students, he said.
Backing the Conservatives’ tough deficit-reduction package of public spending cuts would “make sure future generations are not saddled with the burden of our debt,” he told them. “And by showing people that coalition can work, we can prove that plural, liberal politics is best for Britain.”
Mr Clegg said he would begin 2011 by concentrating on “three big changes” as well as campaigning for a “yes” vote in May’s referendum on changing the Westminster voting system to AV – a key concession won in the coalition negotiations.
“Radical reform of our political system and restoring our hard-won civil liberties; boosting social mobility so that no child is held back by the circumstances of his or her birth; and making sure the economic recovery is green and balanced, with opportunities spread across the whole country,” would be his priorities, he said.
He concluded: “All of us are going to hear some people predict the worst for our party. The same people who have been underestimating the Liberal Democrats for as long as we have existed. But we prove them wrong at every single turn.”