We can win, Nick Clegg tells Lib Dems

Author: By Daniel Bentley, Press Association

The Lib Dem leader told delegates at the party’s annual conference in
Bournemouth that he was going after the top job.

He deliberately ducked the entire issue of whether the Lib Dems would be
prepared to join a coalition government with either Labour or the Tories.

But he has also steadfastly refused to rule out an alliance in the event of a
hung Parliament.

Senior party figures insisted that their own research suggested that the next
election was so wide open that they could still overtake both Labour and the
Tories.

The Lib Dems have 63 MPs. They would need more than 300 seats to hold a
majority in the House of Commons.

In a personal appeal to voters, Mr Clegg said today: “I want to be Prime
Minister because I have spent half a lifetime imagining a better society,
and I want to spend the next half making it happen.”

Mr Clegg used his keynote speech at the close of the Lib Dems’ annual
gathering to appeal to disenchanted Labour voters to back him instead,
insisting a Tory administration was not inevitable.

“We are the only party that offers real change at the next election,”
he said.

“Labour is dying on its feet. We are replacing them as the dominant force
of progressive politics.

“We are the alternative to a hollow Conservative Party that offers just
an illusion of change.”

Mr Clegg also sought to make light of direct questioning of his leadership by
senior Lib Dem MPs but warned that he would not shrink from telling them
difficult truths.

He has come under fire for his strategy of “savage” spending cuts
and watering down the party’s commitment to abolishing tuition fees.

He sidestepped tuition fees altogether, but admitted it had been “quite a
week” for the party.

“I am never going to duck asking the important questions however
difficult they are,” he said.

“But I am immensely proud to lead a party that actually debates things,
openly and democratically.”

Mr Clegg issued a blunt warning to activists that there was “no easy
solution” on public spending given the dire state of the public
finances.

But, after criticism of his cuts plans from even within his own frontbench
team, he added: “I am not going to abandon our vision for a better
Britain because money is tight.”

He acknowledged that there would be “difficult” decisions on
spending but insisted: “Taking them is the price of fairness.”

Mr Clegg made a new promise to find work or training for young people within
90 days of them being made unemployed, using money raised from putting VAT
back up to 17.5%.

He restated his pledge to raise the starting threshold for income tax to
£10,000 and warned the rich and polluters that they would foot the bill.

“I’ll be honest – if you’ve got a house worth over a million pounds, if
you fly trans-Atlantic a couple of times a month, if you get a seven-figure
bonus paid in share options to get around income tax, you will pay more.

“That is what is fair.”

Mr Clegg was joined on stage by a number of Gurkha veterans as he raised his
successful campaign earlier this year to ensure their citizenship rights.

And he again urged Prime Minister Gordon Brown to take a different course in
Afghanistan, saying that “time is running out”.

Calling for development assistance to be stepped up, talks with the Taliban
and a new co-ordinated international strategy, he said: “We should do
this properly or we shouldn’t do it at all.

“So I say to the Prime Minister – time is running out.

“Unless you change course, there will be no choice but to withdraw, and
that would be a betrayal of the servicemen and women who have already made
such enormous sacrifices on our behalf.”

In what was his last speech to an annual conference before the next election,
Mr Clegg admitted that many people do not regard the Lib Dems as
“contenders” despite liking his policies.

“I urge you to think again,” he said.

“If you don’t agree with our policies, if you don’t want big change in
Britain, then don’t vote for us.

“But if you like what you hear, if you share our vision for a different kind
of future.

“Then go with your instincts – vote Liberal Democrat.”

Ahead of an election that must be held within the next nine months, he urged
voters not to turn to the Tories on the basis that “it’s the only option”.

“When you enter that polling booth, choose the future you really want.

“Make no mistake – the Liberal Democrats will do things differently in Britain.

“But if you want real change in Britain, you have to take a stand. If you want
what we propose, you have to vote for it.”

And he made a naked appeal to those who have been disappointed by New Labour
to switch their allegiance to the Lib Dems.

“If you supported Labour in 1997 because you wanted fairness, you wanted young
people to flourish, you wanted political reform, you wanted the environment
protected or you simply believed in a better future, turn to the Liberal
Democrats,” he said.

“We carry the torch of progress now. The choice at the next election is fake
change from the Conservatives or real change from the Liberal Democrats.

“At a time like this, a time of real crisis, Britain cannot afford to be taken
in by David Cameron’s illusion of change.”

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