UK Politics

Lib Dem conference: Stick to bargain, Clegg warns Tories

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Media captionNick Clegg acknowledged that the summer had been a tough and challenging time for the Lib Dems

Nick Clegg has warned the Conservatives to stick to their "side of the bargain" to keep the coalition government going.

The Liberal Democrat leader said Tory MPs could not "force a turbo-charged right-wing agenda on the country".

The party has threatened to veto "Conservative spending cuts" if some form of "wealth tax" is not adopted at the coalition's next spending review.

But in a speech to the Lib Dem conference, Mr Clegg urged supporters against "squabbling" with the Tories.

Half-way through the intended life of the coalition, the deputy prime minister is under pressure, with his party activists showing unrest and opinion poll ratings remaining low.

Members are unhappy that the coalition has abandoned the Lib Dems' long-cherished ambition of reforming the House of Lords, amid strong Conservative opposition.

And earlier this week Mr Clegg apologised for failing to keep the pre-2010 general election promise not to raise student tuition fees.

Tax ultimatum

During the five-day annual conference in Brighton, Mr Clegg is keen to promote the Lib Dems as a party of "fairness" when it comes to taxation. One of the key themes is the promise to push for a "wealth tax".

It is already Lib Dem policy to levy a 1% "mansion tax" on owners of expensive homes, starting at a threshold of £2m, and officials are looking at developing another proposal along these lines.

A spokesman said the party would refuse to sanction further cuts at the next spending review, expected to happen in 2014, unless some form of wealth tax was adopted by the coalition.

Mr Clegg said: "It's just wrong that people on low and middle incomes who work hard and play by the rules are taxed so much while Russian oligarchs pay the same council tax as some of you do on a family home."

However, the Conservatives oppose the mansion tax, arguing that it is unfair and would hit many homeowners hard.

In his speech to the conference's opening rally, Mr Clegg told delegates not to lose heart, saying: "We are proving that coalition works. But we need discipline. Yes, we must show people that we are different from our coalition partners.

"But if all people see is squabbling then they will think coalition is a messy, incoherent thing."

He also said: "We must show [people] it is a form of government that works well for them. If we don't we will have lost not only the argument for having Liberal Democrats in power but having a third party at all."

Mr Clegg set party activists a target of distributing three million leaflets setting out the "fairer" tax agenda by the end of the year, asking them to "do your bit the old-fashioned way".

The Lib Dems and the Conservatives are committed to working together until the end of this parliament, in 2015.

But Mr Clegg criticised the attitude of some of his coalition partners, saying: "My message to those Conservative backbench MPs who seem to think they have the right to force a turbo-charged right-wing agenda on our country is this: You didn't win the last election.

"You do not have a majority. The British people have not given you the right to act like you do. We formed this coalition in good faith and for the good of the country at a time of crisis.

"That required compromise on both sides. Liberal Democrats have kept our side of the bargain. You must too."

'Independent yellow party'

In recent weeks there has been speculation that the Lib Dems could do a deal with Labour in the event of another hung parliament. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls has demonstrated some warmth towards the wealth tax idea.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes refused to rule out a coalition with Labour.

Yet Mr Clegg used his speech to attack the main opposition party, telling delegates: "Labour have had a lot of fun at my expense in recent days because of the apology I made. There are some pretty big things I think people would like to hear them apologise for.

"How about a personal apology from you, Ed Balls, for nearly bankrupting the country after you went on a prawn cocktail charm offensive in the City of London to let the banks off the hook? And how about, Ed Miliband, an apology, on behalf of your party, for dragging our country into an unjust and illegal war in Iraq?"

But he also urged Labour: "Tell us who you are. Tell the country what you are for, not just what you are against."

A Lib Dem party spokesman denied this was an overture to Mr Miliband and his Labour frontbench team ahead of potential coalition-building.

He told the BBC the Lib Dems were "fiercely independent", adding: "We are not part of the blue or the red party. We are an independent yellow party."

In his speech Mr Clegg announced that Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander would take over the party's review of how to replace Trident, the UK's nuclear weapons system.

This follows the removal of Lib Dem defence minister Nick Harvey from the government in the recent reshuffle.