British Lib Dem leader urges party to stick with coalition

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The leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats appealed to his anxious party Monday to back the governing coalition with the Conservatives and reassured them over looming public spending cuts.

In a speech to the Lib Dem conference in Liverpool, northwest England, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg urged delegates to keep their eye on the prize -- a revitalised nation where they could win power in their own right in 2015.

"The years ahead will not be easy but they will make the difference our country needs," Clegg told a packed auditorium.

"Stick with us while we restore our civil liberties, protect our environment, nurture our children and repair our broken politics. Stick with us and together we will change Britain for good."

The conference is the centrist party's first since it joined the coalition following May's general election, when the centre-right Conservatives won the most seats in parliament but not enough to govern alone.

Clegg issued a strong defence of the coalition and its top priority -- tackling a record deficit by slashing public spending from this year.

The cuts and their speed have caused widespread unease among the party and the broader public, but Clegg said: "It is the only choice if we want to steer Britain out of the economic mess" left by the previous Labour government.

He insisted the cuts would be imposed "as fairly as possible" and stressed that the party would keep its commitment to fairness and social justice.

"We will take risks in government. But we will never lose our soul," he said, adding that although they were in government together, the Lib Dems and the Tories remained "separate parties".

While Labour had "ducked" the challenge of balancing the nation's books, the Lib Dems had proved themselves ready to take it on, he said -- and by doing so had proved themselves a credible political force.

"The door to the change we want was opened, for the first time in most of our lifetimes. Imagine if we had turned away. How could we ever again have asked voters to take us seriously?" he asked.

If they reached the election in 2015 having cleared the debt and imposed their plans on civil liberties, help for the poorest and reform of the voting system, they would be a powerful force, he said.

"The long-term prize is great. I want you to imagine what you will say to people when you knock on their door at the next general election," he said.

© 2010 AFP

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