Nick Clegg’s stark, abject and very personal apology to the voters in his party political broadcast breaks new ground and it is a risk. It could easily be portrayed as a desperate attempt to climb out of his opinion poll ditch and no doubt will be. Nick Clegg insists it’s all his own idea – that it is not pure panic.

He’s told friends he’d like to think he’d do it now even if he wasn’t low in the polls. And the apology is very specific: it is for signing up to the blunt, straightforward National Union of Students pledge that Lib Dem candidates would “vote against any rise in tuition fees in this parliament”. That, Nick Clegg feels, has contributed to a rupture of trust with his party and not much he says for the next two and a half years of this parliament will get heard until he clears the air for a past mistake.

The deputy prime minister had repeatedly said since the tuition fees vote in December 2010 that he wouldn’t apologise for the pledge. His team had said the anger about tuition fees would recede and wouldn’t be an issue at the time of the next election. What’s changed?

19 clegg g w Sorry from Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg’s team says he’s been listening to activists round the country who say voters need to hear something stark. Nick Clegg thinks some of the initial anger (though not all) has abated. The door has been slammed shut in many Lib Dems’ faces as a result of the tuition fees decision and other policies the Lib Dems signed up to in coalition. Nick Clegg hopes it might just be creaked open a bit with this direct address … the security chain is probably  still on, but something like a first re-engagement might start.

This isn’t just about a direct apology to re-connect with voters over a broken pledge. It is also part of a conference plan to “big up” Nick Clegg and his leadership mission – to tell voters who may not see it that way that Mr Clegg is engaged on a major transformation of the Lib Dems, from a party of opposition to a party of power. The tuition fees pledge was a one-off mistake in that very big operation, goes the narrative.

Left-leaning voters who thought they were plumping for a tax and spend left-wing alternative to New Labour in 2010 might think there were more deceits practised on them. Nick Clegg’s message is that they weren’t listening to the bulk of his 2010 message if they thought that and the direction of travel – away from statist tax and spend – will continue.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he describes it as “an extraordinary journey” in his leader’s speech next week as it’s a phrase you keep hearing from those close to him. He’s determined that it’s a journey he intends to see out, all the way to the 2015 general election – please note, Vince Cable. A central part of the conference appears to be to “big up” Nick Clegg himself – to explain that he’s a man who is changing his party and trying to change the country.

There’s another issue that this moment points to: what should future party manifestos look like in what could be the new political age of coalition governments? Should you have an “aspiration” section at the front, followed by “hard policies” and then “non-negotiable red lines for coalition talks?” How much chance will parties take with hard and fast commitments in future manifestos when they could be squeezed out by austerity and coalition?

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