UK Politics

Nick Clegg tells Lib Dems 'we will not lose our soul'

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Media captionNick Clegg: "I never forget that we are a party of fairness, freedom, progress and reform"

Nick Clegg has said the Liberal Democrats will "never lose their soul" despite the compromises of coalition.

The deputy PM tried to reassure the party's spring conference that he had not turned into a Conservative since entering Downing Street in May.

"I haven't been kidnapped by David Cameron," he told them, adding: "I haven't changed one bit."

He was attempting to rally party activists reeling from low poll ratings and public anger over cuts.

But he resisted calls from some in his party to attack the Conservatives in order to reassert its independence ahead of English elections and polls in Scotland and Wales on 5 May.

Instead, he focused on trying to deliver a positive message about what the Lib Dems had achieved in government - including taking the lowest paid out of income tax, civil liberties and the "pupil premium".

'Toughen up'

And he said the party did not need to align itself with the left or right, as "we have our own label: Liberal," claiming, "we own the freehold to the centre ground of British politics".

He told delegates in Sheffield: "We're on the side of the people I call Alarm Clock Britain. The side of everyone who wants to get up and get on.

"People who, unlike the wealthy, have no choice but to work hard to make ends meet."

He defended the government's deficit reduction programme and acknowledged the transition to government had not been easy for the party.

But he told delegates: "I never forget that we are a party of fairness, freedom, progress and reform.

"We cherished those values in opposition. Now we're living by them in government.

"So yes, we've had to toughen up. But we will never lose our soul."

AV call

He also courted controversy by suggesting Labour councils were cutting jobs and services for political reasons - echoing a claim made last week by Conservative communities secretary Eric Pickles.

"Some people say Labour are making cuts for political reasons so they've got something to blame the coalition for in their local election campaigns.

"Let me say this: Anyone who sacks a member of staff or shuts down a public service for political purposes is a disgrace to politics and a disgrace to Britain.

"So yes, we have to tackle the deficit. But we are not a cuts government."

Mr Clegg also urged Lib Dem activists to vote yes in May's referendum on changing the voting system, claiming a move to the Alternative Vote would help clean up politics by ending jobs for life for MPs in safe seats.

"The choice is simple. If you want more duck houses: vote no.

"If you want more democracy: vote yes," said Mr Clegg.

On Saturday, Mr Clegg was dealt a blow by party activists when they voted for a u-turn on controversial government plans to put GPs in charge of commissioning services in England.

The Lib Dem leader promised to take their concerns about the proposed legislation seriously - but aides said he would not be bound by every detail of the rebel amendment.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley responded by saying that "some of the things that people are concerned about will not happen."

Speaking on BBC1's the Politics Show Mr Lansley admitted that the proposals were under review.

"We have already made changes, we are not sitting there going: 'Oh we know the answers and nothing will change.'

And addressing concerns by Lib Dems who claimed private companies would only offer services in profitable areas, Mr Lansley said: "We have to make sure that the price that is paid by the NHS for individual operations doesn't allow for cherry picking."

Speaking at a fringe event at the conference on Saturday evening, Lib Dem president Tim Farron urged the party to be "spikier" in its approach to the Conservatives and to emphasise policy differences on issues such as Trident and social justice.

Labour attacked the Lib Dems as "puppets in a Tory show".

Shadow justice minister Sadiq Khan said: "Nick Clegg is propping up a Tory-led government that is undermining our economy and destroying our communities."

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