Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg speaks on the third day of the Liberal Democrats annual conference in BournemouthGetty

On the morning after I resigned as leader of our party in the wake of that devastating election result, I decided to buy... a phone. Rather than moping at home I thought I'd cheer myself up by buying some new gadgets. In any event, I half expected some grim faced official from the Home Office to turn up and demand my security vetted BlackBerry back at any minute.

So, I figured, what better way to prepare for life out of government than getting my own phone? So off I went with my eldest boy, Antonio, to the nearest high street. I was braced, as you can perhaps imagine, for lots of awkward sideways glances from other shoppers.

After all, we'd just been subject to a very public drubbing at the hands of the country's voters. Instead, something quite unexpected happened: person after person came up to me to say how sorry they were, how undeserved they thought the election result was, how unfairly they thought we'd been treated. One lady even came up to me with tears in her eyes and embraced me in sympathy. So, logically enough, I thanked her for supporting the Liberal Democrats, to which she cried out "but I didn't, I voted green!"

I've thought a lot about that reaction since then. I'm sure you may have seen something similar too – it's as if lots of voters experienced some kind of buyers remorse in the wake of such an unanticipated result. Of course, one sympathetic reaction doesn't tell the whole story and I certainly don't tell it to absolve myself of my own mistakes and miscalculations.

But I think it does show that there is still lots of goodwill out there towards us. In some strange way people seem to understand better what we stood for - and what they have now lost - through our defeat in the polls than through our victories in Government. And those achievements in Government, in turn, wouldn't have happened without you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Each and every one of you. Whether you liked or loathed the coalition. Whether you were exhilarated or exasperated by my leadership. Thank you.

Your resilience, good humour, decency and unity throughout everything we've gone through together has been truly humbling. We stuck together in the face of pressures which would have broken other parties. And we came together when other parties would have fallen apart.

Just look at the contrast between our leadership contest and Labour's. Labour's contest was shrill, angry and divisive – an exercise in self denial as Labour members rushed to bury their past, embarrassed by their own record. By contrast, the contest between Tim and Norman was thoughtful, respectful – most of the time at least - asking the right questions about our future but proud and unembarrassed about our past.

Labour: battered at the ballot box, now battering eachother and only speaking to itself. The Liberal Democrats: battered at the ballot box, now coming together to give the country the decent, liberal centre ground alternative it so desperately needs. And haven't we got just the best possible man to lead that charge in our new Leader, Tim Farron? I've known Tim as a colleague and a friend for many, many years. He is without doubt the best campaigner I have ever come across in all the years I've been in politics. He is generous to a fault. A liberal to his fingertips. And brave.

Did you feel as proud as I did to be a Liberal Democrat when, in the middle of the summer holidays - as Tory Ministers were reclining on sun loungers across Europe or whipping up public fear about swarms of migrants at home - there was at least one politician brave enough to actually go to Calais to put a human face on the statistics, to show compassion not derision in the face of a humanitarian crisis?

And that was Tim. Leadership isn't always easy. Politics is a noisy and brutal business – leaders are always being told to do this, not do that; go this way, or that way. But leaders also should be allowed to lead – and that's why Tim deserves, and will get, our undivided loyalty and support as he leads our fightback across the length and breadth of Britain.

And now we face a new reality. It might not feel fair. We got a million more votes than the SNP yet we only have a seventh of the seats they do. The Tories only got 24% of the eligible vote, yet they have a majority in the Commons.

Yet it's the reality we need to deal with. I got to know David Cameron and George Osborne pretty well over five years of sharing power. They have many qualities – some good, quite a few bad – but one in particular really helped them out in this election: they are lucky generals.

They took over their party ten years ago just as Labour sank into endless Blair-Brown internal strife; and then fought Labour in an election just after Gordon Brown had presided over the worst economic crisis in a generation. Then they were in a Government which had to make big, controversial cuts to public spending, yet it was us, their coalition partners, who took most of the political blame.

And now they face a divided and directionless Labour opposition, cut off at the knees by the SNP's surge in Scotland, and a much reduced Liberal Democrat presence in Parliament. George Osborne and David Cameron can't believe their luck. They're back in Government on their own for the first time in almost twenty years with no effective opposition and no coalition partner to keep them honest.

So, now that they can finally do what they like – what do they actually do? Bully the BBC. Denigrate refugees. Repeal human rights laws.

Attack the Unions. Remove help for the working poor. Revive the Snoopers' Charter. Undermine our place in Europe. Threaten to scrap free school meals. And reverse pretty well every green measure introduced in recent years. You couldn't make it up.

We've got UKIP wanting to turn the clock back to the 1950s.

Jeremy Corbyn turning the clock back to the 1970s.

Osborne and Cameron turning the clock back to the 1980s.

And the SNP who want to take us back to the 1600s!

What's their problem with the twenty-first century?

No wonder more people now say they appreciate what we did in Government – they can see what happens the moment we leave the room!

Lots of our critics used to say that we made no difference in Government.

Say that to the single mum working flat out as a nurse who's about to lose a staggering £2000 because of George Osborne's budget. Some budget for working people!

Say that to the head of a Further Education College struggling to give poorer kids a chance who's about to get their budget cut to the bone because the Conservatives don't understand the value of vocational education.

Say that to the thousands of people employed in the once burgeoning green energy industry whose jobs are now at risk because the Conservatives have no time for "green crap".

And in a twist which would be laughable if it wasn't so absurd, George Osborne and David Cameron seek to claim that their Government is on the "centre ground"!

Centre Ground:

Now, let me get something off my chest about the centre ground.

I realise there are some who feel that pinning our colours to the centre ground risks sounding a little insipid, a neither-on-the-one-hand-nor-on-the-other kind of party.

As it happens, I accept the observation that has been made that by talking about the centre ground in relation to the other two larger parties at the last election – you know, head and heart and all that stuff – we made the centre ground sound a bit too much like a tactic, rather than a place rich in values and conviction.

I'm not sure we had an obvious strategic alternative - but I accept that criticism and take full responsibility for it.

But what I don't accept for one second is that the liberal, progressive, modern centre ground of British politics is an insipid place to be.

There's nothing insipid about believing in compassion rather than intolerance.

In believing in reason rather than prejudice.

In believing that the freedom and privacy of individuals should be cherished not frittered away.

There's nothing insipid in believing that social mobility, true opportunity, cannot be made available to millions of our fellow citizens unless we do the hard graft of creating a strong and prosperous economy too.

Or believing that our clapped out political institutions need a radical overhaul.

And there's nothing insipid in believing that we must stand tall in the world, not retreat towards the false appeal of chauvinism and nationalism.

Tolerant.

Compassionate.

Rational.

Progressive.

And open, not closed, to the world.

That is the centre ground I believe in .

And the great irony of all this is that, as Tim has said, just at the moment when we have been knocked to the floor a great big liberal-sized hole has opened up in the middle of British politics.

In that huge chasm between a self serving Tory government and a far left Labour opposition lies our great opportunity.

Because, right now, they are not speaking for mainstream Britain.

They are not arguing for liberal values.

They are not standing up for a Britain that is tolerant, generous and outward-looking.

The centre ground of British politics is standing empty.

That is our opportunity.

That is where we belong.

That is where, under Tim's leadership, the fightback begins.

And as we seek to fill that gap, we should reach out to moderates in other parties, especially Labour but Conservatives as well, who also believe that progress is best made from the progressive centre of politics.

All my political life I have tried to demonstrate that working across political boundaries in not a sin, but can be a virtue.

Time and time again I have seen the opportunity for real progress thwarted by the dead hand of Westminster tribalism.

Now, as politics enters a period of unprecedented fluidity, I hope those in other parties who embrace the kind of liberalism we believe in will be willing to work with us across party boundaries in Parliament and outside it to assemble a progressive, modern challenge to the unimaginative Conservativism of this Government.

Europe:

In any event, we will be sharing platforms with other parties very soon in what is the most momentous decision this country has faced in a generation: whether to remain or leave the European Union?

The stakes could not be higher: not just one, but two, unions now hang in the balance.

If we vote to leave the EU, I have no doubt that the SNP will gleefully grab the opportunity to persuade the people of Scotland to leave the UK as well.

Then what?

Do we want our children and grandchildren to live in a once great country now pulled apart?

A Great Britain turned into a Little England, drifting friendlessly somewhere in the mid Atlantic?

I have no doubt that David Cameron's referendum will be contested on the issue of jobs, economic security, the terms of any renegotiation and so on.

But there's a big, enduring question which hangs over all of this: what kind of country do we want to be, what is our role, in this globalized world of ours?

Open or closed?

Leading in our own European backyard or isolated from our nearest neighbours?

Because let's be clear: for all the huffing and puffing we're going to hear from those who want to leave the EU, they have no answer to that fundamental strategic question.

Is America, Uncle Sam, going to help us out when we've cut ourselves off from our own European backyard?

Of course not – we may share history and language, but the Americans have been unsentimentally clear that we are of less relevance to them if we are less important in Brussels, Berlin or Paris.

The Chinese and Indians simply can't understand why we're even contemplating relinquishing our leadership role in Europe in the first place.

That is why the ambivalence of the new Labour party leadership is so utterly perplexing. Over the years we've all got used to the isolationism of the Conservative party.

But Labour?

On a number of occasions in recent years I've seen the Labour party abandon its progressive principles to score short term tactical points: failing to support House of Lords reform; barely lifting a finger in the AV referendum; blocking party funding reform.

But I say to Jeremy Corbyn: the EU referendum is simply too important for ambivalence.

Whether we remain in or out of Europe is an existential question for Britain – if we leave we face an uncertain and isolated future; if we stay in we can lead as a strong European power.

That is why we must strain every sinew to fight – and win – the referendum.

These are not easy times for liberals.

Across Europe, liberals are on the back foot as the politics of fear and populism, of us versus them, is on the rise.

But, however much the result of the election hurts, I will never waver in my pride in what we achieved in coalition.

We achieved remarkable things in remarkably difficult circumstances.

Whether it's a young girl with mental health problems who will now get treated not ignored;

a small boy from a poor family who gets the attention at school he deserves;

the millions of families who get to keep a bit more of the money they earn.

Whether it's the pensioner who has greater security in old age;

the child who starts out at school with a healthy, free lunch every day;

or the gay couple who finally get to celebrate their love through marriage.

We may never know how many millions of people we helped across the country.

These are real achievements for real people in the real world – and we must never, ever let our opponents take that away from us.

Thank you for making all that possible.

As searing as it was to be beaten as badly as we were...

As difficult as it is to make our voice heard when we've been reduced in size...

I firmly believe that under Tim's leadership we can be the comeback kids of British politics – starting at next May's elections.

It won't be easy, it won't be instant and it won't come without setbacks along the way.

But we will bounce back.

Because there is a place in British politics for tolerance, reason and compassion.

There is a place in British politics for an open-minded, outward-looking, optimistic party.

Because – as dawn follows the darkest hour - there is now space in British politics for a great fightback by the most resilient political party of our times, the Liberal Democrats.

On the morning after I resigned as Leader of our party in the wake of that devastating election result, I decided to buy... a phone.

Rather than moping at home I thought I'd cheer myself up by buying some new gadgets.

In any event, I half expected some grim faced official from the Home Office to turn up and demand my security vetted Blackberry back at any minute.

So, I figured, what better way to prepare for life out of Government than getting my own phone?

So off I went with my eldest boy, Antonio, to the nearest high street.

I was braced, as you can perhaps imagine, for lots of awkward sideways glances from other shoppers.

After all, we'd just been subject to a very public drubbing at the hands of the country's voters.

Instead, something quite unexpected happened: person after person came up to me to say how sorry they were, how undeserved they thought the election result was, how unfairly they thought we'd been treated.

One lady even came up to me with tears in her eyes and embraced me in sympathy. So, logically enough, I thanked her for supporting the Liberal Democrats, to which she cried out "but I didn't, I voted green!"

I've thought a lot about that reaction since then.

I'm sure you may have seen something similar too – it's as if lots of voters experienced some kind of buyers remorse in the wake of such an unanticipated result.

Of course, one sympathetic reaction doesn't tell the whole story and I certainly don't tell it to absolve myself of my own mistakes and miscalculations.

But I think it does show that there is still lots of goodwill out there towards us. In some strange way people seem to understand better what we stood for - and what they have now lost - through our defeat in the polls than through our victories in Government.

And those achievements in Government, in turn, wouldn't have happened without you.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Each and every one of you.

Whether you liked or loathed the coalition.

Whether you were exhilarated or exasperated by my leadership.

Thank you.

Your resilience, good humour, decency and unity throughout everything we've gone through together has been truly humbling.

We stuck together in the face of pressures which would have broken other parties.

And we came together when other parties would have fallen apart.

Just look at the contrast between our leadership contest and Labour's.

Labour's contest was shrill, angry and divisive – an exercise in self denial as Labour members rushed to bury their past, embarrassed by their own record.

By contrast, the contest between Tim and Norman was thoughtful, respectful – most of the time at least - asking the right questions about our future but proud and unembarrassed about our past.

Labour: battered at the ballot box, now battering eachother and only speaking to itself.

The Liberal Democrats: battered at the ballot box, now coming together to give the country the decent, liberal centre ground alternative it so desperately needs.

And haven't we got just the best possible man to lead that charge in our new Leader, Tim Farron?

I've known Tim as a colleague and a friend for many, many years.

He is without doubt the best campaigner I have ever come across in all the years I've been in politics. He is generous to a fault. A liberal to his fingertips.

And brave.

Did you feel as proud as I did to be a Liberal Democrat when, in the middle of the summer holidays - as Tory Ministers were reclining on sun loungers across Europe or whipping up public fear about swarms of migrants at home - there was at least one politician brave enough to actually go to Calais to put a human face on the statistics, to show compassion not derision in the face of a humanitarian crisis?

And that was Tim.

Leadership isn't always easy. Politics is a noisy and brutal business – leaders are always being told to do this, not do that; go this way, or that way. But leaders also should be allowed to lead – and that's why Tim deserves, and will get, our undivided loyalty and support as he leads our fightback across the length and breadth of Britain.

And now we face a new reality.

It might not feel fair.

We got a million more votes than the SNP yet we only have a seventh of the seats they do.

The Tories only got 24% of the eligible vote, yet they have a majority in the Commons.

Yet it's the reality we need to deal with.

I got to know David Cameron and George Osborne pretty well over five years of sharing power. They have many qualities – some good, quite a few bad – but one in particular really helped them out in this election: they are lucky generals.

They took over their party ten years ago just as Labour sank into endless Blair-Brown internal strife; and then fought Labour in an election just after Gordon Brown had presided over the worst economic crisis in a generation.

Then they were in a Government which had to make big, controversial cuts to public spending, yet it was us, their coalition partners, who took most of the political blame.

And now they face a divided and directionless Labour opposition, cut off at the knees by the SNP's surge in Scotland, and a much reduced Liberal Democrat presence in Parliament.

George Osborne and David Cameron can't believe their luck.

They're back in Government on their own for the first time in almost twenty years with no effective opposition and no coalition partner to keep them honest.

So, now that they can finally do what they like – what do they actually do?

Bully the BBC.

Denigrate refugees.

Repeal human rights laws.

Attack the Unions.

Remove help for the working poor.

Revive the Snooper's Charter.

Undermine our place in Europe.

Threaten to scrap free school meals.

And reverse pretty well every green measure introduced in recent years.

You couldn't make it up.

We've got UKIP wanting to turn the clock back to the 1950s.

Jeremy Corbyn turning the clock back to the 1970s.

Osborne and Cameron turning the clock back to the 1980s.

And the SNP who want to take us back to the 1600s!

What's their problem with the twenty-first century?

No wonder more people now say they appreciate what we did in Government – they can see what happens the moment we leave the room!

Lots of our critics used to say that we made no difference in Government.

Say that to the single mum working flat out as a nurse who's about to lose a staggering £2000 because of George Osborne's budget. Some budget for working people!

Say that to the head of a Further Education College struggling to give poorer kids a chance who's about to get their budget cut to the bone because the Conservatives don't understand the value of vocational education.

Say that to the thousands of people employed in the once burgeoning green energy industry whose jobs are now at risk because the Conservatives have no time for "green crap".

And in a twist which would be laughable if it wasn't so absurd, George Osborne and David Cameron seek to claim that their Government is on the "centre ground"!

Now, let me get something off my chest about the centre ground.

I realise there are some who feel that pinning our colours to the centre ground risks sounding a little insipid, a neither-on-the-one-hand-nor-on-the-other kind of party.

As it happens, I accept the observation that has been made that by talking about the centre ground in relation to the other two larger parties at the last election – you know, head and heart and all that stuff – we made the centre ground sound a bit too much like a tactic, rather than a place rich in values and conviction.

I'm not sure we had an obvious strategic alternative - but I accept that criticism and take full responsibility for it.

But what I don't accept for one second is that the liberal, progressive, modern centre ground of British politics is an insipid place to be.

There's nothing insipid about believing in compassion rather than intolerance.

In believing in reason rather than prejudice.

In believing that the freedom and privacy of individuals should be cherished not frittered away.

There's nothing insipid in believing that social mobility, true opportunity, cannot be made available to millions of our fellow citizens unless we do the hard graft of creating a strong and prosperous economy too.

Or believing that our clapped out political institutions need a radical overhaul.

And there's nothing insipid in believing that we must stand tall in the world, not retreat towards the false appeal of chauvinism and nationalism.

Tolerant.

Compassionate.

Rational.

Progressive.

And open, not closed, to the world.

That is the centre ground I believe in .

And the great irony of all this is that, as Tim has said, just at the moment when we have been knocked to the floor a great big liberal-sized hole has opened up in the middle of British politics.

In that huge chasm between a self serving Tory government and a far left Labour opposition lies our great opportunity.

Because, right now, they are not speaking for mainstream Britain.

They are not arguing for liberal values.

They are not standing up for a Britain that is tolerant, generous and outward-looking.

The centre ground of British politics is standing empty.

That is our opportunity.

That is where we belong.

That is where, under Tim's leadership, the fightback begins.

And as we seek to fill that gap, we should reach out to moderates in other parties, especially Labour but Conservatives as well, who also believe that progress is best made from the progressive centre of politics.

All my political life I have tried to demonstrate that working across political boundaries in not a sin, but can be a virtue.

Time and time again I have seen the opportunity for real progress thwarted by the dead hand of Westminster tribalism.

Now, as politics enters a period of unprecedented fluidity, I hope those in other parties who embrace the kind of liberalism we believe in will be willing to work with us across party boundaries in Parliament and outside it to assemble a progressive, modern challenge to the unimaginative Conservativism of this Government.

In any event, we will be sharing platforms with other parties very soon in what is the most momentous decision this country has faced in a generation: whether to remain or leave the European Union?

The stakes could not be higher: not just one, but two, unions now hang in the balance.

If we vote to leave the EU, I have no doubt that the SNP will gleefully grab the opportunity to persuade the people of Scotland to leave the UK as well.

Then what?

Do we want our children and grandchildren to live in a once great country now pulled apart?

A Great Britain turned into a Little England, drifting friendlessly somewhere in the mid Atlantic?

I have no doubt that David Cameron's referendum will be contested on the issue of jobs, economic security, the terms of any renegotiation and so on.

But there's a big, enduring question which hangs over all of this: what kind of country do we want to be, what is our role, in this globalized world of ours?

Open or closed?

Leading in our own European backyard or isolated from our nearest neighbours?

Because let's be clear: for all the huffing and puffing we're going to hear from those who want to leave the EU, they have no answer to that fundamental strategic question.

Is America, Uncle Sam, going to help us out when we've cut ourselves off from our own European backyard?

Of course not – we may share history and language, but the Americans have been unsentimentally clear that we are of less relevance to them if we are less important in Brussels, Berlin or Paris.

The Chinese and Indians simply can't understand why we're even contemplating relinquishing our leadership role in Europe in the first place.

That is why the ambivalence of the new Labour party leadership is so utterly perplexing. Over the years we've all got used to the isolationism of the Conservative party.

But Labour?

On a number of occasions in recent years I've seen the Labour party abandon its progressive principles to score short term tactical points: failing to support House of Lords reform; barely lifting a finger in the AV referendum; blocking party funding reform.

But I say to Jeremy Corbyn: the EU referendum is simply too important for ambivalence.

Whether we remain in or out of Europe is an existential question for Britain – if we leave we face an uncertain and isolated future; if we stay in we can lead as a strong European power.

That is why we must strain every sinew to fight – and win – the referendum.

These are not easy times for liberals.

Across Europe, liberals are on the back foot as the politics of fear and populism, of us versus them, is on the rise.

But, however much the result of the election hurts, I will never waver in my pride in what we achieved in coalition.

We achieved remarkable things in remarkably difficult circumstances.

Whether it's a young girl with mental health problems who will now get treated not ignored;

a small boy from a poor family who gets the attention at school he deserves;

the millions of families who get to keep a bit more of the money they earn.

Whether it's the pensioner who has greater security in old age;

the child who starts out at school with a healthy, free lunch every day;

or the gay couple who finally get to celebrate their love through marriage.

We may never know how many millions of people we helped across the country.

These are real achievements for real people in the real world – and we must never, ever let our opponents take that away from us.

Thank you for making all that possible.

As searing as it was to be beaten as badly as we were...

As difficult as it is to make our voice heard when we've been reduced in size...

I firmly believe that under Tim's leadership we can be the comeback kids of British politics – starting at next May's elections.

It won't be easy, it won't be instant and it won't come without setbacks along the way.

But we will bounce back.

Because there is a place in British politics for tolerance, reason and compassion.

There is a place in British politics for an open-minded, outward-looking, optimistic party.

Because – as dawn follows the darkest hour - there is now space in British politics for a great fightback by the most resilient political party of our times, the Liberal Democrats.