Friday, September 24, 2010

Not a bad week...

So, as the conference circus leaves Liverpool and shuffles a few miles east to Manchester, how should the Liberal Democrats feel? Being objective for a moment, they should be quite satisfied with the week.

There have been no real rebellions of any import - the vote against academy schools will feed only into the next manifesto and will have no effect at all on government action, even though Sarah Teather is having to implement a programme that she previously condemned. The Trident vote allowed the membership to affirm a policy which is already the subject of a get-out clause in the coalition agreement. Clegg's speech was workmanlike rather than inspiring, but adequate enough.

Vince Cable closed the conference with a rabble-rousing speech that was trailed as borderline Marxist, but on reading offers fine words, but little substance. Indeed, it is a strange speech that is spun as an attack on business, but focussed on selling most of Royal Mail straight into the hands of that same business sector. Even stranger, it was announced that the Security Industry Authority is to be abolished, not because of the costs - it is fully-financed by the industry itself - but because it is perceived as unnecessary red tape. Actually, if anything, the SIA needed to be beefed up to deal with an industry sector notorious for the dodgy behaviour designed to rouse Cable's righteous anger. Perhaps that is the quid pro quo for the abolition of wheel-clamping that has proved such a good earner for the security industry.

But the opponents within the party have largely been quiet. Simon Hughes is playing the role of John Prescott in terms of keeping in touch with the party faithful, but Hughes also has some limited licence to channel opposition. The importance of this role cannot be overstated to the coalition and it would be a mistake to think that he is anything other than a key asset at the heart of the coalition project.

The reality is that power is seductive and the Liberal Democrats can soothe themselves with thoughts that they are mediating the excesses of the Tories or that the coalition will deliver some key Liberal policies in exchange for support for some Tory ones. Those senior players who have genuine concerns about the direction that this government is taking have kept their counsel and the few party members who have poked their heads above the parapet have been listened to courteously and then ignored. The Liberal Democrats realise that the conference is a shop window, no longer a talking shop, so dissent isn't part of the etiquette. The Liberal Democrats have also had to endure unprecedented scrutiny and it is little wonder that at conference, they have circled their wagons and demonstrated their unity. It doesn't help that there is as yet nobody prepared to marshall an opposition - and the briefing against Charlie Kennedy will prove a salutary lesson to those who are considering it.

No, Clegg and his team can relax with the warm feeling of a job well done for another year. Next year may be a different story, as the cuts are made flesh, the AV vote may be lost and if Liberal Democrats are put to the sword in the elections. That in particular would be damaging, as it would create an instant constituency of disaffected Liberals only too well-aware that they had been sacrificed for a few crumbs from the top table. If that comes to pass, then this rather lukewarm conference may be seen as a brief blossoming of a golden age of Liberalism. This might well be as good as it ever gets.

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