Politics has been in Verhofstadt's blood since his university days. From 1972 through 1974, he headed the Flemish Liberal Student Party, which served as a training ground in the party's ideas and taught its members how to shape an agenda and put together leadership teams. In 1977, Verhofstadt became the political secretary to a senior Liberal Party politician, Willy De Clercq. De Clercq was masterful at forging compromises behind the scenes and in bringing disparate elements in the party together. As political secretary, Verhofstadt learned from direct involvement how the party was structured and how power was utilized.
Verhofstadt was a strong advocate of free markets from the 1970s through the mid-1990s. The Liberal Party is a probusiness party, with strong support from a variety of white-collar businesses, including private financial institutions. For some in Belgium, Verhofstadt's devotion to the free market was once considered too rigid. Socialists, Christian Democrats, and some of the country's newspapers derided him as "Baby Thatcher" due to his admiration for former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. Nonetheless, he was widely viewed as having a brilliant legal mind. In 1982, at the age of 29, he became president of the Liberal Party. From 1985 until 1988, while the Liberals were a junior partner in a coalition government, Verhofstadt served as a vice prime minister and as minister of state for the budget. Out of power in 1988, the Liberals named him to their "shadow cabinet" in a position-in-waiting should the party rejoin or lead a government. It was rare for someone so young to rise so quickly. The Belgian French press referred to Verhofstadt as "the big blue bad boy" due to his considerable height, the color associated with his party, and his sometimes rough, ardently ambitious ways.