Lib Dem spring conference: ‘The fightback starts here’

By staff

The Liberal Democrats need to stop apologising for the past and get on with proving themselves in government, Nick Clegg will say today.

The party's spring conference is dominated by rumours of emergency motions calling for the NHS reform bill to be dropped, but its leadership is urging members not to look "in the rear view mirror".

"No more looking back. You can't drive if you're only looking in the rear-view mirror," Nick Clegg will tell delegates during an evening rally tonight.

"Of course we have many fights ahead of us. But I don't know about you, I'm up for a fight or two."

He will add: "So let's tear off that rear view mirror and look straight ahead. Let's get on with the job that we all came into politics to do – making this a more liberal nation."

The deputy prime minister recently tried to move on from the debate over NHS reform by convincing Shirley Williams, a vocal critic in the Lords, to back a series of amendments restraining private involvement in the health service.

Her decision to join the party leader saw the bill win key votes in the Lords and unleashed another wave of anger against the Liberal Democrats from NHS campaigners.

"We got three-quarters of our manifesto into government policy, so I hereby allow you to stop saying sorry for the quarter we didn't get," party president Tim Farron will say.

"And if people wanted that missing quarter, well they should have flipping voted for us shouldn't they?"

He will add: "The comeback starts here.

"Together we will build our party so that we go from here to new victories.

"Winning back the seats we lost last year, defending our parliamentary seats, winning new territory, transforming Britain into a liberal society."

Last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference saw members reject the NHS reform bill, triggering the listening pause.

This year, two competing motions – one rejecting the bill and the other arguing it has had enough changes to be acceptable, are competing against each other.

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham is seeking to persuade the Lib Dems to continue to oppose the legislation outright in a blog post on Lib Dem Voice today.

His "direct appeal" to the party's grassroots suggests a Lib-Lab alliance over the bill which could "just about" prevent it going through parliament.

"It is clear that many prominent Liberal Democrats, in private if not in public, consider this bill to be a dud," Mr Burnham wrote.

"I feel certain that the long-term best interests of your party are better served by acknowledging that and doing something about it, rather than acting out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to the coalition. In doing so, you would of course be implementing the letter of the Coalition Agreement."