What did millions of people across Britain, getting on with their daily lives, see when they looked at Westminster over the last few weeks?
One minute, a Coalition Government publishing its third Queen’s Speech: fundamentally reforming pensions; tackling longstanding problems with social care; getting to grips with immigration. Big, bold measures that will leave a lasting imprint on millions of Britons’ lives.
The next? Westminster consumed by game-playing over Europe and gay marriage; MPs disappearing into a parliamentary rabbit warren, obsessing over this new tactic or that new trick: paving legislation, enabling referendums, wrecking amendments...
Anyone watching would be forgiven for asking: what are these politicians doing?
So it’s time to get back to governing; providing the leadership and focus the people of Britain deserve in these difficult times.
This morning I want to give three simple and clear reassurances; the three things I will work flat out to deliver to keep the government and the country on track.
Reassurance number one: Coalition until 2015
First, I am absolutely committed to this Coalition lasting until 2015 – as is the Prime Minister.
At the weekend I saw some rather creative coverage of comments made by the Prime Minister about the future of the Government.
In fact, he echoed exactly what both of us have always believed:
This Coalition has been remarkably radical; it still has work to do; and the best way for us to serve and improve Britain is by finishing what we started.
To those voices who say that it will be in either, or both, parties’ interests to prematurely pull the plug: I couldn’t disagree more.
In 2010 the British people dealt us this hand. And they will not forgive either party if we call time ahead of the election that has been legislated for in 2015 – destabilising the nation in the vague hope of short-term political gain.
I know some commentators think it would be clever to duck out six months early. But that doesn’t make any sense either.
The idea that the Liberal Democrats could suddenly win back those people who have never liked us going into government with the Conservatives is nonsense. As if we could pull the wool over people’s eyes, using an early exit to somehow erase the previous four and a half years.
And, frankly, that isn’t what we want. The Liberal Democrats look forward to fighting the next election as a party of government, on our record in government, and with a distinct vision of our own for the next government – having seen this one through until the end.
Reassurance number two: our priority is the economy
Reassurance number two: from now until that election, the Coalition will remain focused on the biggest task at hand – fixing the economy.
Of course Europe and gay marriage are important. These are issues my party cares deeply about.
But Britain is facing the most profound economic challenge in living memory. And now, more than ever, we cannot allow Parliament to be clogged up by these matters simply because they cause the biggest political punch ups.
Our priorities must be people’s priorities: boosting business, creating jobs, helping with the cost of living.
On the big ticket items the Coalition parties must continue to find a way forward together. Just as we have done on cutting income tax; dealing with the deficit; creating a million new jobs; transforming the education and welfare systems; providing unprecedented guarantees – £50bn worth – for infrastructure and new homes; greening our economy; creating record numbers of apprenticeships...
And there must be no doubt that this Coalition remains united on the end we all seek:
A stronger, rebalanced economy, built on sound public finances, with opportunities spread to every corner of the UK.
Two staunch opponents, working together to find answers to the most critical questions facing Britain today, pioneering major reforms that will stand the test of time. That’s what this Coalition has always been about – and it’s what it must continue to be about.
Reassurance number three: we will remain anchored in the centre
Lastly, reassurance number three: this Government will not vacate the centre ground.
There’s a mistaken idea, shared by both the Labour leadership and some in the Conservative party, that they decide what people care about in Britain today. The idea you can take a big marker pen and draw the centre ground wherever it’s ideologically convenient for you.
Ed Miliband thinks he can nudge the country to the left, luring people over with unfunded spending promises: more borrowing, bigger budgets, a risk-free, pain-free end to austerity.
Some Conservatives insist the centre of gravity has swung the other way. They seize on people’s reasonable concerns over things like immigration and welfare as proof the nation has shifted to the right.
Yet in reality millions of people across Britain continue to shun the extremes of left and right.
They want a stronger economy – but they also want a fairer society; not one or the other, both.
They want us to maintain stability by taking responsibility for our debts – but with the burden spread fairly.
These are the people who get angry when they see abuse of the benefits system – but they are still proud that their country provides help to the vulnerable, the sick and the poor.
They don’t believe it’s right when illegal immigrants get a free ride – but they still value the benefits that immigration has bought to the UK.
They emphatically agree that we should cut red tape to help business – but not at the expense of workers' rights.
They want more choice in our public services – but could never support privatising the NHS or profit-making in schools.
They think gay people should be treated as equal with straight people, and so able to get married – but they wouldn’t condone forcing a church to conduct those ceremonies against its will.
In the 21st Century, Britain’s centre ground is modern; balanced; inclusive.
It doesn’t face left; it doesn’t face right; it faces forward.
And if you stand in the centre ground, rest assured: so long as I am Deputy Prime Minister this Coalition will not walk away from you.
Coalition until 2015. Cleaning up the mess in the economy Labour left us. Anchored in the centre ground. Exactly as we set out in May 2010.
It won’t all be plain-sailing.
Some of the most divisive issues – like the UK’s role in Europe – are not going to go away.
We also have to be realistic about the other challenges that come with the later stages of Coalition. As we head towards the election there will be increasing pressure on David Cameron and myself to act as party leaders as much as PM and DPM: pressure to put party before nation. And I don’t pretend I won’t relish the moment I can hit the campaign trail on behalf of the Liberal Democrats in the run up to the General Election.
But here’s the bigger truth: whether you are the larger or smaller party, the fact is governing together in the public interest carries a cost. Making compromises; doing things you find uncomfortable; challenging some of your traditional support – these are the dilemmas the Conservatives are coming to terms with, just as my party has had to.
The next two years will not be without their hurdles and no doubt there will be disagreements between the Coalition parties along the way. Let’s be clear: sincere policy debates and ideological differences are, and will continue to be, a part of coalition.
But the parliamentary game playing we’ve seen over the last few weeks discredits the importance of these issues, and it’s an unwelcome distraction.
Our parties made a commitment to the people of Britain: we promised to govern responsibly and to stay focused on the issues that matter most.
That has not changed. It will not change. And I am more determined than ever that we finish what we started.