Clegg squares up for party conference fight

Nick Clegg during a speech to the LSE earlier this week.
Nick Clegg during a speech to the LSE earlier this week.

By Ian Dunt

Nick Clegg was taking fire from party members and his own former colleagues today, as he prepared for the start of the Liberal Democrat conference.

The party leader was warned not to be a "grumpy passenger" by former chief secretary of the Treasury David Laws, as members tried to force a vote on NHS reform and give the leadership a bloody nose on cuts to legal aid.

In a sign of irritation at Mr Clegg's select attempts to distance himself from the Conservatives by highlighting the restraint the Lib Dems put on their coalition parties, Mr Laws said the party had to act as more than a "brake" on government.

"While it is essential that our identity is not lost, it would be a disaster if the Lib Dems were simply to evolve into an internal opposition," Mr Laws wrote in an article for the Sun.

"On all the key areas — the economy, education, welfare reform — the Lib Dems should be part of the engine of the coalition, not merely its brake.

"We will best serve our country as constructive front-seat drivers, not as grumpy passengers who are merely looking forward to the end of a bumpy ride."

Meanwhile, grassroots activists are reported to be challenging party managers on the decision to not hold a vote on NHS reforms.

The reforms were watered down following a listening exercise – held, according to some sources, as a result of pressure from Mr Clegg – but many campaigners are still incensed at the remaining provisions in the health and social care bill, which was roundly rejected by the party last spring.

There was considerable criticism online at the decision not to hold a vote on the issue.

The Liberal Democrats, who still decide policy after voting at conference, pride themselves on their democratic standards.

There is also a fierce campaign to force Mr Clegg's hand on legal aid, which is set to be drastically cut as part of the Ministry of Justice's cost-saving measures.

The party already rejected the move at its spring conference and opposition is likely to rear itself again next week.



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