Clegg in fight for political future
Nick Clegg will today begin the Liberal Democrat conference amid doubts over his leadership harboured by Westcountry activists.
The Deputy Prime Minister has won praise from the grassroots in the region after apologising for breaking a pledge to halt the rise in university tuition fees ahead of the Brighton event.
But there remain "concerns" his leadership, which has made "mistakes", could cost the party during a wave of local elections in Devon and Cornwall next May.
The South West is the Lib Dem powerbase, the region in which it first made significant local government and, later, parliamentary gains under Paddy Ashdown.
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Andrew Bridgwater, vice chairman of the Lib Dem regional group for Devon and Cornwall, said: "There are various views on the leadership and how it will impact on elections next year for county and unitary authorities in Devon and Cornwall, and the police and crime commissioner elections.
"But there is real concern about Nick Clegg's leadership and how that will affect support and I would expect to pick up that feeling at conference."
At a rally tonight, Mr Clegg will launch a campaign for fairer taxes, including a long-mooted levy on "mansions".
He will defend the tie-up with the Tories to tackle the economy, and is expected to say: "We chose to govern with our political opponents because our country needed a stable government at a critical time. Not because it was easy but because it was right. That is still true."
But there appears to be wounds that need to be healed within his own ranks, which partly prompted the tuition fees apology this week.
Of that, Mr Bridgwater, who is also chairman of the Lib Dem Education Association, said: "My reaction to that is that it is very good but why did he not do that at the time?"
He added there are a series of policies causing concern: "The most recent example is getting rid of GCSEs and their replacement by the EBacc. It's not been thought through."
Councillor Alex Folkes, deputy leader of the Lib Dem group on Cornwall Council, is more forgiving, though conceded there had been errors.
Arguing a coalition with the Tories was more palatable than a Conservative minority government, he said that distinctly Lib Dem policies have been implemented. "We have achieved a lot. Increasing the income tax threshold, the Pupil Premium, restoring the pensions link to earnings and, broadly, the civil liberties agenda.
"I do believe that David Cameron is a small 'l' liberal who believes in same-sex marriage, but that would have been thrown out by the right-wing of his party without Liberal Democrats in coalition."
But he added: "We have made mistakes, such as with tuition fees.
"That was most fundamental because it was an issue of trust. We broke our word. Not all MPs did, but we are a party people can trust – that was the biggest problem."
He said the apology was "right, but a bit late", adding: "But better late than never."
The original proposals for a "pasty tax" also risked being damaging in the Westcountry, and the first draft of the NHS reforms was "horrendous".
Mr Folkes said: "How we got into a position where we signed up to that I do not know. But we made it much better."
Mr Folkes believes the "majority of people will vote in local elections on local issues". "There is a big difference between what we offer and what the Conservatives offer," he said.
Nick Harvey, Lib Dem North Devon MP, dismissed claims Mr Clegg would be axed as leader any time soon.
He said: "As Deputy Prime Minister he is under pressure all the time. But I don't think he is in the dire trouble as some elements of the media are suggesting."