Speaking in his keynote address to the Liberal Democrat party conference, Clegg said the party had not “lost its soul” by signing up to a Conservative-led government.
He said swingeing spending cuts were the “only choice” if Britain is to plug its yawning Budget deficit, and accused the former Labour government of bringing “the country to the brink of bankruptcy”.
But Clegg’s speech was overshadowed by a massive revolt over the coalition’s schools policy. Party members overwhelmingly passed a motion opposing plans to create more academies and free schools, which are free from local authority control.
The motion, which took party leaders by surprise, said there was a risk that the new schools would increase “social divisiveness and inequity in a system that is already unfair”.
The defeat is particularly troubling for the Liberal Democrats because members are supposed to set official party policy at conference. That means the party leadership is in the uncomfortable position of promoting a policy that has been vetoed by grass roots members.
Clegg was forced to hastily rewrite part of his speech following the revolt. He insisted the policy – which has been enthusiastically backed by both coalition parties – was compatible with Liberal Democrat values.
He said: “It wouldn’t be a Liberal Democrat conference if we didn’t have a motion that provoked strong passions on both sides. The great thing is that all Liberal Democrats share a passion for education.”
TRADITION POSES HEADACHE FOR LIB DEM MINISTERS
For most parties, a grass roots revolt wouldn’t be much of a problem.?Tony Blair was famous for pursuing policies that upset rank-and-file Labour members, while David Cameron has taken the Tories in a direction that has annoyed many among the party faithful.
But the Lib Dems are different. Their conference is seen first and foremost as a policy-making forum. If members don’t like a policy, the leaders are supposed to drop it. Nick Clegg even had to ballot members at an emergency assembly before he went into a coalition with the Tories.
The Lib Dem leadership is in an incredibly tricky position. Now that the motion attacking academies and free schools has been passed, the party is supposed to campaign against the policy. But the legislation has already been passed and Lib Dem schools minister Sarah Teather (pictured) is responsible for ensuring it is effective.
The democratic tradition has attracted members interested in setting policy rather than simply carrying cards. But it is a headache for a party that is now in government – not opposition.