At the Close of the LibDem Conference, Has Cleggmania Returned?

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Cleggmania has returned. Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t reached the Beatle-level hysteria the Liberal Democrat leader enjoyed in the lead up to last year’s elections. But the angry party recriminations that plagued Clegg earlier this year seem to have evaporated – or at least are simmering deep below the surface. This week the Liberal Democrats presented a unified face, or really a kind of gritted grin, to the world in voicing their support not just for Clegg but the coalition government which they are part of alongside the Conservatives of Prime Minister David Cameron.

“Liberal Democrats, we have now been in government for 500 days. Not easy, is it?” Clegg asked a jovial crowd in his speech closing the conference held this year in Birmingham. “Yes, it has been hard. And adversity tests the character of a Party just as it tests any person. We’ve shown – you’ve shown – immense strength. After being hit hard, we picked ourselves up and we came out fighting… Not doing the easy thing, but doing the right thing. Not easy, but right.”

“Not easy, but right,” was the mantra of Clegg’s speech. Indeed, it has been his mantra for the last six months. Day by day Clegg has reminded his Party that in the face of the economic crisis they could have chosen to remain outside of government and, while politically more expedient – they probably wouldn’t have lost seats in the May elections – it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. Just like all those compromises on austerity and cuts – tough, but there wasn’t much of a choice. And the sales pitch seems to have worked. “I didn’t vote for him when we had leadership elections,” says Peter Morris, chair of the East Midlands LibDems. “But he came to Leicester last spring and he was just very, very good at speaking to members. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Party made the right choice.”

Clegg has honed his professional political image in the last year. He entered the conference hall today after a short video set to Charlie’s Angels-style music – the 70’s show, not the Drew Barrymore remake – flashing images of him laughing with President Obama, cuddling babies, comforting the elderly and pounding the podium in Parliament. His polished, earnest speech was at once slightly defensive – really, we shouldn’t have formed a coalition with Labour; funny – he drew a dozen laughs; poignant when talking about the riots and a generation of lost youth; and chest thumping – he was interrupted with applause 31 times in the 43-minute speech and received two ovations. “Nick pulled us through a tough year,” says Stephen Glenn, a LibDem member from Northern Ireland. “Last spring we seemed to be pulling ourselves apart, but he’s done a pretty good job of putting us back together.”

Certainly, the rumors that he’d made a deal to stay only one term with his wife, Miriam, seem to be untrue. Clegg even joked about them on Wednesday, saying maybe he should tell her that in 70 years’ time he might not still be in Parliament. Rumbling that the LibDems might pull out of the coalition seems to also be quieting. Will Clegg be leading the LibDems into the next election in 2015? That looks more likely now, though it remains to be seen, says David Grace, a LibDem from Yeovil. Grace says he thinks Clegg could bow out six months before the elections to head the European Commission – a rumor that has persisted throughout the five-day conference. “I think a lot will depend on how many people have jobs,” Yeovil says. “If the economic program works, he’ll be rewarded. If it doesn’t, well, then he won’t.”