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East meets Westminster: Liberal Democrats ask themselves tough questions at conference

09:32 27 September 2012

Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg delivers his keynote speech, Lewis Whyld/PA Wire

Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg delivers his keynote speech, Lewis Whyld/PA Wire

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CONFERENCE season is a perfect opportunity to tell voters your big ideas - but the Liberal Democrats needed to talk to themselves, writes Richard Porritt.

But for the Liberal Democrats their week by the sea had to be more about getting the faithful back onboard.

From Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s apology on tuition fees onwards the annual gathering has been an internal conversation as much as a soap box.

The Lib Dems have been in a tough situation since day one of the coalition agreement. They might have gained some power but they have lost a lot of identity – and the party’s leaders are now determined to put distance between themselves and the Conservatives and return to their own political trench for what promises to be a brutal few years before the next general election.

And – as Mr Clegg exclusively told this column in the summer – the party appear to be quite happy to become political bed-hoppers.

Vince Cable – a former Labour councillor – was always uncomfortable with the power-sharing arrangements. He, and many of the MPs and supporters, would have been happier siding with Labour – and he believes the Lib Dems should prepare for another five years of power post 2015.

He told conference: “I don’t believe actually that the British people will want to entrust their future to any one party next time. And if Britain wants sustainable growth, competence with compassion, fairness with freedom and more equality not ever greater division, then that government must have Liberal Democrats at its heart.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband quite possibly fired off a supportive text message when he watched that. And another after this bruising passage: “Most of our MPs will face Conservatives at the next general election,” he said. “They face the enticing prospect of a Tory split. Now I don’t know what Boris and Dave got up to in Eton - perhaps a pillow fight got out of control in the dormitories.

“I have been told, however, that jokes about social class are not good for the unity of the coalition. But as a mere pleb, I couldn’t resist it.”

With jibes about chief whip Andrew Mitchell and quips about the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister’s dormitory secrets it appears the gloves are well and truly off - but out and out war is yet to be declared.

But the signs are clear to the supporters the Lib Dems have left and those they hope to win back - But do they actually have the stomach for the fight?

During yesterday’s end of conference speech Mr Clegg was less critical of the Tories instead turning his fire on Labour - but interestingly not Ed Miliband personally.

But he did stir the tension brewing between Boris Johnson and the Prime Minister, joking about an article the Mayor wrote earlier this week which was broadly positive towards Mr Clegg.

“At least he’s found one party leader he is prepared to endorse in public,” he told a cackling conference.

But his main message was firmly aimed at his followers: Stop fearing change and embrace it because nothing will ever be the same again.

There was a time when being a Lib Dem was easy - sandals, long hair and promises you would never have to keep. Then came power.

He said: “But conference, I tell you this. The choice between the party we were, and the party we are becoming, is a false one. The past is gone and it isn’t coming back.”

The 38-minute speech was a curious mixture of gloom and fist punching. Mr Clegg began by laying out the difficult times that still face the country and reflected these upon his own party.

But he ended by invoking the party’s mantra of “marching towards the sound of gunfire” and then came over all Neil Kinnock in the closing line yelling “let’s go for it” in a moment with more than a passing similarity to the former Labour leader’s disastrous 1992 Sheffield speech.

As the best speaker among the three main party leaders Mr Clegg made the most of a difficult speech but it was far from a classic. At its peaks the speech followed and pace was even and clean - at its worst it felt like a Sunday league football manager trying to get the under nines’ chin up as slumped to a 3-0 half-time deficit.

But Colchester MP Sir Bob Russell told East meets Westminster the atmosphere in Brighton has been positive and the future for his party could still be bright.

“Although the polling nationwide has not been good, in the places where we have MPs and councils support remains,” he said.

“I agree with Vince Cable that neither Labour of the Tories will be able to form a government after the next election so there is every possibility we will remain in power. And that gives us a golden opportunity to make our mark on the political landscape.”

But the Lib Dems are only really around the top table because the country disliked the three parties rather than gave anyone a mandate. And the signs are that floating voters could be getting annoyed with coalitions.

So the Lib Dems have spent all week trying to re-discover themselves now the shock of power has set in. But they have yet to convince that they actually prefer making decisions instead of making promises.

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