There are distinct signs that the Liberal Democrats are growing up into a real political party this year.
Firstly, the nutty conference proposals that we all love - offering 16 year olds the chance to get into the porn industry or allowing them to join the ranks of binge drinkers, for example - have been carefully filed away by the media-savvy organisers. Well, almost - they still found time to discuss a curious plan to flog off the Royal Mail to finance bailing out Post Office Counters. Why they reckoned that this proposal would provide a long-term solution to the structural problems that beset the counter operation, I don't know, but the conference sensibly kicked the idea into touch. Bluntly, the current system of sub-post offices is in decline and there's not a lot that will arrest that. For years, these could rely on a steady stream of benefits claimants and pensioners dropping by to collect their money, but with the advent of direct payment into bank accounts, that's drying up and the traditional business of selling postal services doesn't cover the operational costs. The Liberal Democrat proposal would provide a cash injection by part-privatising the Royal Mail section of the business, but there was little sign of long-term change to revive the counter service. But I digress.
As part of their adolescence, the party is embarking on its own modernisation process - whether it wants to or not - and drifting to the right in the pursuit of power. But where does Charlie stand? With him, it's more about sitting on the fence and picking the right side to follow. Whether you approve of them or not, both Thatcher and Blair made their mark on the their parties and were associated with cultural change (yes, I know that Kinnock did the hard work first, but that's not the point). Chatshow Chuckie has a serious image problem - he's well-liked and popular, but doesn't look like a Prime Minister. He needs to lead his party more, rather than trying to please everyone until he can work out which side has majority support. He mustn't be afraid to make a few enemies if there's something he really believes in - beyond getting into power.
The other two major party leaders have been firmly stamped with a sell-by date, so the media have naturally turned their attentions to Chuckles and he's come up wanting. That's not to say that he's about to get dumped - although there were rumblings post-election and it would only take a couple of bad despatch-box performances in the Commons and a poor by-election run to start the Simon Hughes juggernaut rolling again. For that reason, there's not a huge appetite for a change in the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, although as other LibDem MPs of a newer generation come to prominence - Oaten and Laws, for example - the pressure on Charlie is likely to increase. In the country, only around 20-30% of voters (whether they vote LD or not) want to see him gone, so he's safe for the time being.
Every time he's been questioned about his leadership, he falls back on a scripted defence of 'leading a party at conference with more MPs than it has had for eighty years.' That's all well and good, but there is a danger that this could be the high water mark for the Lib Dems. Bear in mind that this election saw him up against two fairly unpopular leaders, so I think that Charlie could have expected better results. Next time round, he'll be the long-serving leader up against two new (old) faces and he'll look a bit tired by comparison. Newsnight pointed out that if progress continues at the current rate, Charlie can look forward to a Liberal Democrat government around 2081. He might be a little old to be PM then.
The whole point about this is that the Liberal Democrats need to change their image to improve their chances of garnering votes. Outside conference season, the media only lights on their policies during election time, so it is stunning that following a campaign, 60% of the public don't know what they stand for, according to the latest ICM/Guardian poll (hat-tip to Anthony Wells, as usual). What is even more intriguing is that when ITV's Dimbleby programme asked the same question earlier in the year, 52% gave the same response. It's dangerous to compare polls without checking that the methodology is comparable, so I'm not going to claim that it's actually got worse over recent months. Both the ICM and the Populous poll for the Times show that the LDs are still regarded as the party of the protest vote, which isn't a recipe for getting elected to power other than by a freak accident.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether the party membership will let them head off towards those sunlit uplands of government, or whether they are happiest in opposition.