The former Lib Dem leader conceded that it had been a mistake to pitch the party as the middle way between heartless Tories and an economically incompetent Labour in the general election, because this appeared too tactical and did not say enough about their own values.
However, he said there was now a huge opportunity for the Lib Dems to define themselves as a progressive, liberal party in the centre as Labour moves further to the left.
He told a packed hall of activists at the Lib Dem party conference in Bournemouth: “We can be the comeback kids of British politics. As dawn follows the darkest hour, there is now space in British politics for a Lib Dem fightback.”
Clegg said David Cameron and George Osborne had won the election because they were “lucky generals” while the Lib Dems had “copped all the political blame” for coalition policies.
He argued there was now “no effective opposition and no coalition partner to keep them honest” while the Conservatives bullied the BBC, denigrated refugees, repealed human rights, attacked trade unions, removed help for the working poor and threatened the UK’s place in Europe.
Clegg said some had argued that by pinning its colours to the centre ground at the election, the party “risked sounding insipid”. He added: “I accept the observation that by choosing to talk about the centre ground in relation to the other parties we risked making it sound like a tactical choice.”
But he said he rejected the notion that a progressive modern centre ground was an insipid place to be if the party could talk about its convictions and values while rejecting the false appeal of nationalism and chauvinism.
Privately, some senior Lib Dems are anxious that the rise of Corbyn is a further blow to the already severely weakened party because leftwing members could be attracted by his anti-establishment politics and commitment to civil liberties, while worried centrists may move to the Conservatives to keep Labour out of power.
However, the activists in Bournemouth appeared to be optimistic and galvanised by Corbyn’s win, despite the party having lost all but eight of their MPs and gained just 8% of the vote in May.
Clegg received a prolonged standing ovation for his first speech to the conference since his resignation. Like the new Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, Clegg told the conference that Corbyn’s victory offered a chance for the party to rebuild and attract moderate, liberal-minded people into its fold.
He said there was still “a huge amount of goodwill” towards the Lib Dems despite their drubbing at the polls.
This article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Monday 21st September 2015 13.56 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010