THE polls may suggest he is struggling, but Nick Clegg has declared he can beat Labour in its own North East backyard.
“We can beat anyone actually in principle because I think the old rules, not only of the economy but of politics are breaking down,” said the Liberal Democrat leader in an exclusive interview with The Journal.
A chipper Mr Clegg declared the North East would be his key hunting ground at the next general election and predicted that regional minister Nick Brown could even succumb to a Lib Dem sweep.
Mr Clegg said success would depend on the Lib Dems being ahead of Labour and the Tories on the economy. And he blasted Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s record.
The blame for soaring debt levels could be “laid fair and square” at the door of Mr Brown who had handed a blank cheque to the banks, said Mr Clegg.
“Whilst no doubt a lot of heat and fury from Gordon Brown and David Cameron might catch a few headlines, I think over time a lot of people will recognise in Newcastle, the North East and elsewhere that we were actually the ones who predicted a lot of this recession.
“We have come up with the most imaginative responses, which represent real practical help to people.
“You have got three very clear choices in British politics. You have got a Government, which is saying we will give you some goodies now but you’ll all going to have to pay for it later. You have got the Conservatives who are very good at scoring points, but have got absolutely nothing to say which will be of any material help to families in Newcastle, Northumberland and the North East.
“And then you have got ourselves as actually the only party with a plan to deliver very steep tax cuts, income tax cuts, which would benefit millions of people on ordinary incomes paid for by closing the huge loopholes that the Government has still left open in the tax system, which only the wealthy and big businesses benefit from.
“Our plans would give £1,000 back for instance for someone on a £30,000 annual salary.”
The Lib Dem leader renewed suggestions that nationalised Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley could be used by the Government to directly loan to businesses if other banks failed to live up to promises to do so.
And he stressed the North East was “one of the most important areas” for the Lib Dems after “astonishing” local council gains in Northumberland and ongoing success in Newcastle.
But the big test would be the general election, when voters would ask if they wanted another Labour MP to represent them after “generations, if not forever” if local problems had not been solved.
“If they haven’t sorted that over 10 years why on earth would they do it now?
“I think it is time to give the Liberal Democrats a chance, particularly because we have proved ourselves as being so far-sighted on these big economic issues, I think it is time that a lot of people give us a chance to prove ourselves.”
Obama's values shared by my party, says leader
NICK Clegg has compared the Liberal Democrats to Barack Obama while insisting he is not a British version of the American president-elect, who will be inaugurated tomorrow.
The Lib Dem leader said: “If you look at policies and if you look at values in terms of opposing the Iraq war, which he did in America, we were the only party to do it here.
“In terms of giving big tax cuts to people on low and middle incomes, paid for by closing the loopholes at the top, we are the only party to advocate that here.”
He also linked his party’s emphasis on “green” economic growth with investment in public transport, insulation, housing and offshore wind farms that could create up to 80,000 jobs in the North East.
“Those are all themes which Obama is saying, but I mean I have never entered into this silly Dutch auction which Gordon Brown and David Cameron did – the me too auction saying I am just like Barack Obama.
“Of course, I am not like Barack Obama but I think it is clear that the Liberal Democrats share all the policies and values that have proved to be very popular in America,” said Mr Clegg.
NORTH East families face “crippling” bills for heating, Nick Clegg warned.
Nick Clegg said energy companies should be forced to change charging systems with households having to pay more for the first units of energy used.
“What it actually means is if you are a pensioner, heating one room in your home because you can’t afford to heat more, you are paying more per unit of energy than a millionaire who is heating his mansion. That is just wrong.”
A NEW high-speed rail link to the North East is “no-brainer” because it would benefit the whole country, according to Nick Clegg.
He also said upgrading the A1 through the region to deal with “severe congestion” was required to help “great” companies and residents in the North East.
“I think the case for a high-speed rail link is absolutely clear. It is a no-brainer for me.
“It is essential that a region as important as the North East should be properly linked to the rest of the country not only for its benefit but for the benefit of the rest of the country.”
He said work on the A1 passed strict social and environmental tests.
The cable guy
NICK Clegg has dismissed any concerns that Vince Cable is overshadowing his leadership of the Liberal Democrats.
Mr Cable, the party’s Treasury spokesman and deputy leader, has enjoyed a growing reputation after his economic predictions have proved correct and he put ministers on the spot.
The Lib Dem leader has faced difficulties in being heard amid the economic crisis.
But Mr Clegg swept aside any such concerns, saying: "I am really delighted that Vince has got this justified reputation for being one of the most authoritative, trusted political spokespeople on the economy.
"As leader I am nothing but delighted about that. We work in very close partnership."