Clegg Sets His Sights On Downing Street

Nick Clegg(Reuters) – LIBERAL DEMOCRAT LEADER NICK CLEGG, on Wednesday, declared his ambition to become prime minister, as party aides said private polling indicated that the next election was ‘wide open.’

Clegg, 42, told delegates at their autumn conference in Bournemouth that he sought the top job because he had spent half a lifetime imagining a better society ‘and I want to spend the next half making it happen.’

He made no reference to the possibility of winning power through a coalition or pact in a hung parliament, which analysts say is the party’s best chance of tasting power, given that it now only holds 63 of parliament’s 646 seats.

Polls say the Conservatives are set to sweep Labour from power in a general election, with the Liberal Democrats trailing in third on a 20% vote.

But LibDem party aides said private polling, conducted over the summer, showed many people were undecided over which party to support in the election expected next May; and that the result was far from certain.

Clegg, positioning the Liberal Democrats as a credible alternative for government, said his party was replacing Labour as the ‘dominant voice of progressive politics.’

‘We are the alternative to a hollow Conservative Party that offers just an illusion of change,’ he added. ‘Let me tell you why I want to be prime minister. It is because I want to change our country for good.’

Dismissing Labour as ‘dying on its feet,’ Clegg focussed his attack on the Conservatives, who are the main challengers in 13 of the Liberal Democrats’ 20 most vulnerable seats and would win them all if current national polls are reflected locally.

Clegg urged undecided voters not to be taken in by leader David Cameron’s promise of ‘fake change.’

‘Don’t stay at home, don’t vote Conservative just because you think it’s the only option,’ he said.

Cameron at the weekend tried to woo Liberal Democrat supporters to vote Conservative, saying that there was barely a ‘cigarette paper’ dividing the two parties on many issues — a claim Clegg dismissed.

‘The choice at the next election is fake change from the Conservatives, or real change from the Liberal Democrats.’

Delegates gave Clegg a standing ovation after the 50-minute speech as he embraced his wife Miriam and shook hands with a group of Gurkha soldiers, attending to thank him for his assistance in their successful fight for British settlement.

‘It was a really good speech,’ said Laura Willoughby, 35, a councillor from Islington, London. ‘We shouldn’t back down on policies that are important to us. He talked about them openly and honestly, and for me, that’s pukka.’

The speech closed a conference marred by the chaotic launch of a plan to raise tax on expensive homes and dissent over his threat to downgrade a key pledge to scrap university tuition fees.

Senior Liberal Democrat MPs complained they had not been briefed in advance on treasury spokesman Vince Cable’s surprise proposal on Monday for a 0.5% levy on houses worth more than a million pounds.

Members of the party’s Federal Policy Committee insisted that the long-standing pledge to scrap tuition fees would remain in the election manifesto despite Clegg’s warning that it might be unaffordable in an era of shrinking public spending.

And delegates were concerned by the tone of Clegg’s warning on the eve of the conference that ‘savage’ cuts were needed in government budgets to counter the billions of pounds Labour has pumped into the economy to ease the recession.

One leading party MP said Clegg had ‘overdone the despair’ and risked alienating voters.

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