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Clegg Seeks Lasting Liberal Democrat Spot in U.K. Government

Sept. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg listed Conservative policies he’d blocked since becoming U.K. deputy prime minister as he sought to persuade voters his party should have a permanent place in government.

Three and a half years after the U.K. got its first two-party administration since World War II, Clegg said today that it’s been stable and has delivered better policies than David Cameron’s Conservatives or Labour would have done if they’d taken power alone. The Liberal Democrat leader made the comments in his closing speech at the annual party conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

“Where there are disagreements, we try and seek compromise, and by doing that we’ve cracked problems that single-party governments have struggled with for decades,” Clegg said. “But sometimes compromise and agreement isn’t possible and you just have to say ‘no.’”

The deputy prime minister has spent the week seeking to distance the Liberal Democrats from the two bigger parties. He said today he’s willing to govern with either. If the 2015 election results in another hung Parliament in which no single party has a majority, he’ll open negotiations with whichever has won the most votes and seats, rather than based on any personal preference, he said.

“I have spent my entire life watching the other two mess it up,” Clegg said. “We cannot stand idly by and let them do it all over again. We are the only party that can finish the job of economic recovery, but finish it fairly. Our place is in government again.”

Voters Disagree

Voters don’t agree, according to a ComRes Ltd. poll for ITV published today. Sixty-seven percent want a single-party government after next election, with 10 percent opposing that, the poll found. And 24 percent say the Liberal Democrat contribution to government has been good for Britain, with 46 percent disagreeing. ComRes questioned 2,052 people Sept. 13-15 for the poll, for which no margin of error was specified.

Still, Clegg has emerged from his conference with his party behind him, according to Andrew Russell, professor of politics at Manchester University and author of “Neither Left Nor Right,” a history of the Liberal Democrats.

“Their victories in government have been smaller than their defeats, but Clegg does feel vindicated,” Russell said in a telephone interview. “The party has now accepted that the decision to go into coalition wasn’t the disaster it had seemed. They’ve managed to hold some seats in local elections. They’re now in a position they would have killed for 12 months ago, but still one that they would have been suicidal about three years ago.”

Bipartisan Criticism

The Liberal Democrats have been criticized by Labour Party lawmakers for putting Cameron into power and by Tory lawmakers for blocking policies they advocate such as making it easier for businesses to fire workers.

At their conference this week, Liberal Democrat delegates have given their backing to measures they want to see included in the party’s 2015 campaign platform. They include introducing a system of taxation on land value, taxing capital gains at the same level as income and bringing in a so-called mansion tax for residential properties valued at more than 2 million pounds ($3.2 million).

Labour is ahead of the Tories in national opinion polls, though its lead has narrowed in recent weeks, increasing the possibility that the Liberal Democrats might again hold the balance of power in 2015.

Poll Standings

A YouGov Plc poll published in today’s Sun newspaper put Labour support at 37 percent, with the Conservatives at 33 percent and the Liberal Democrats at 9 percent, less than half the level of backing they got in 2010. YouGov questioned 1,792 adults on Sept. 16 and yesterday for the survey, for which no margin of error was specified.

Such a result, if replicated in 2015, would give Labour a majority of more than 40 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, according to standard calculations. It might reduce Liberal Democrat representation to about 20, down from the current 57.

Internally, Clegg’s party has shown signs of tension since it became the junior coalition partner, putting Liberals into government for the first time in the postwar period.

Clegg, who began his career as a member of staff at the European Commission for a former Conservative minister, Leon Brittan, spent much of the early part of the government’s five-year term emphasizing how well he worked with Cameron.

Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat business secretary, is a former Labour local lawmaker who devoted much of his own conference speech two days ago to attacking the Conservatives, whom he labeled “Tea-Party Tories.”

‘New Sofa’

“I’m endlessly asked who I feel more comfortable with,” Clegg said. “As if I was buying a new sofa. In an ideal world I wouldn’t have to work with either because I’d be prime minister on my own.”

“The best thing would be to put all of the predictions and personalities to one side: whether or not we have another coalition is determined by the British people,” Clegg said. “Only their votes can tell us what combination of parties carried the greatest legitimacy.”

In a series of interviews yesterday, Clegg said he could see himself as a deputy prime minister to Labour leader Ed Miliband after 2015. “I’m not saying I should be deputy prime minister for ever and a day, absolutely not,” he told the BBC.

To contact the reporters on this story: Robert Hutton in Glasgow, Scotland, at rhutton1@bloomberg.net; Kitty Donaldson in Glasgow, Scotland, at kdonaldson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Hertling at jhertling@bloomberg.net

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