DEPUTY Prime Minister Nick Clegg was braced for a rough ride inside and outside the Liberal Democrat spring conference at Sheffield City Hall today.
With protesters promising to test the £2 million “ring of steel” police have thrown around the venue, the leadership is fighting to avoid defeat in a vote on the coalition’s health reforms.
The Lib Dem leader and Sheffield Hallam MP is also facing a grilling from nervous members over his compromises with the Tories, while Business Secretary Vince Cable will be asked to justify trebling tuition fees despite the party previously pledging to oppose any rise.
Last night Mr Clegg, who got a standing ovation after his opening address, issued a blunt warning to activists that he would not back down over controversial policies, insisting they needed to “get used” to trouble now the party was in government.
“We’ve put down the placards and taken up the reins of power,” he told a rally kicking off the conference.
“It’s a big change, but it is worth it. You can’t do everything when you are in power, but you can’t do anything when you are not. With power comes protest. We need to get used to it.”
He directly addressed seething disquiet among Lib Dems over the decision to treble the maximum university tuition fee to £9,000.
“I know how difficult this issue has been for all of us in this party,” he said. “We didn’t win the election and with two other parties determined to raise fees, we couldn’t deliver our preferred policy.”
However, he blamed the former Labour government for creating the problems, saying the Opposition was now “shouting from the sidelines” without offering any solutions.
“While we have wrestled with our conscience over this - Labour have shown themselves to have no conscience at all,” he said. “They are the party who introduced fees in the first place and hiked them up.”
He added: “While we are taking the tough decisions to clear up the mess Labour made of our country, they are offering nothing. They act like the last 13 years didn’t happen.”
Questioned about Government action to curb City bonuses during an interview with BBC Radio Sheffield, Mr Clegg also risked controversy by saying he wanted to “wring the necks” of bankers awarding themselves huge bonuses.
“It’s a red rag to my bull,” he said. “I am like anybody else: you want to wring the neck of these wretched people who behaved so irresponsibly and then we are now having to bail them out.”
The Lib Dem leader played down the potential for damaging splits at conference over issues like the planned reform of the NHS, which is the subject of a critical motion.
Backbencher Andrew George has indicated he will be among those speaking against the leadership during the debate.
“We are very open and very democratic,” Mr Clegg said. “You do not have these North Korean-style conferences like you do in the other parties where everyone just agrees with each other and nods robotically at whatever the leader says.
“There are going to be some demonstrations outside and some debate inside and I think that is exactly right when the Liberal Democrats are in Government at a controversial time.”