IN MOST walks of life, being timeless is a good thing. Not so with political speeches. Yesterday, Nick Clegg delivered the closing address of the Liberal Democrats’ annual conference in Glasgow, a speech so forgettable that he could have given it a year ago. There’s every chance he had actually given it before.
The deputy prime minister was revved up about Labour’s failings and the Conservatives’ secret ambition to serve a privileged few. But most of the content wasn’t new, it wasn’t funny, and the hour-long speech, which the Lib Dem leader wrote himself, didn’t even feel genuine.
Which is odd, because if you put Clegg in front of a tricky audience for a round of off-the-cuff questions, his passion for politics is immediately obvious. Nobody could accuse him of lacking substance – a criticism frequently levelled at Labour’s Ed Miliband. But yesterday, he missed the greatest opportunity the Lib Dems will have to win the votes his party needs to survive in May’s general election. He failed to offer an easily definable alternative to Labour and the Conservatives, and in doing so became the man in the middle. It’s hard to believe that’s what Clegg really wants, but his speech felt forced and tired, perhaps hinting at his waning appetite for a fight the Lib Dem leader once relished.
Clegg’s biggest mistake was to define his vision for the country against the failings of other parties, forcing him to address the political landscape in terms that are not his own. At best, it made him look boring, at worst desperate. Nor will he convince people that he’s the most trustworthy leader by shouting about how the Tories hoodwinked him into thinking they’re nice, while boasting about how proud he is of his party’s record in government at the same time. If you’re seeking to set yourself apart from the political games played by your two rivals, you can’t employ their tactics so obviously yourself.
The constant references to stolen policy made Clegg look petulant, not statesmanlike. The slightly fevered intonation he employed for the pay-off lines made him sound more like a man on the edge than a man in control, especially after Lib Dem members heavily defeated a plan by the party leadership to support airport expansion at Gatwick, a defeat which forced Clegg to admit that Lib Dem policy on the issue makes no sense.
This was meant to be the Lib Dem leader’s big pitch to an electorate crying out for something other than “don’t trust the other two”. He shouldn’t have used it to have the last word, which is what Clegg ultimately chose to do – most notably in a section directed at home secretary Theresa May. In doing so, he perpetuated everything voters hate about the Westminster bubble and played into the hands of Ukip and the Tories, who will revel in his meandering performance.
What should have been a battle speech became a limp exercise in rewriting history by a party leader so caught up in an internal battle with his coalition partners that he can’t see the wood for the trees. He has forgotten who his party really speaks to. And it is a great shame, because Clegg could have chosen to talk at length about the things that matter to people, to change the terms of the debate like he did with mental health. Instead, he chose to settle old scores. This won’t cut it with an electorate already weary of party politics, especially when Clegg's principles are already looking frayed around the edges.