British Lib Dem leader seeks to reassure anxious members

19th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

The leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats sought Sunday to reassure anxious members over their coalition with the Conservatives and urged them to give it time to prove its worth.

Nick Clegg addressed party members in Liverpool, northwest England, where the Lib Dems held the first full day Sunday of their annual conference, the first since taking a junior role in the coalition following May's elections.

At a question and answer session, delegate after delegate questioned him about the damage being done to their party by the coalition's plans, notably to slash public spending to reduce a record deficit.

Two polls released Sunday show the party is languishing at 15 percent or 13 percent -- at least ten points below their result in May.

Clegg, who is deputy prime minister, defended the austerity drive: "None of us went into politics to make cuts, but there's nothing fair or socially just in asking our children and grandchildren to pay off our debts."

And he rejected as absurd a suggestion that the five Lib Dem cabinet ministers could publicly express their opposition to government policies born of compromise that their members might not like.

But he appealed: "It's very early days. It's a long game.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint, and grabbing now at some opportunities to create synthetic differences in a coalition government of which we are a crucial, vital part, would be short-term satisfaction for long-term failure."

He signalled his impatience with critics who questioned the compromises he has made to win power, saying: "We didn't win the election! If you want the Liberal Democrat manifesto, make sure you win the next election!"

But he said he was "supremely relaxed" about his party's identity, insisting it was not being absorbed into the Conservatives.

Sparks of dissent are expected over the next few days, focused on debate about Britain's nuclear deterrent and the coalition's education policies. Delegates greeted Clegg on stage Sunday with applause that was polite more than enthusiastic.

However, they appeared energised by his comments, and he will hope to continue this in a keynote speech Monday where he will remind them of the achievement of finally taking power after decades in the political wilderness.

© 2010 AFP

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