The Lib Dem Conference That Didn’t Bark

by Stephen Tall on September 25, 2012

On the face of it this has been a pretty tepid, even dull, Lib Dem conference. No rows, cock-ups, or defeats. But it’s probably been the most important party gathering since the special conference in May 2010 when the party dipped its hand in blood to sign the Coalition Agreement.

Why do I say that? Because of what didn’t happen.

Political commentators, especially of the left (yes, I’m looking at you, Polly) – the folk whose favourite past-time it is to write-off the Lib Dems between elections before re-discovering once again we’re still alive-and-kicking – have told us there are two things we must absolutely do to stand a chance of surviving:

  1. get rid of Nick Clegg.
  2. kill Plan A stone dead.

Yet what’s happened this week in Brighton? The party has point-blank ignored the conventional wisdom so generously proffered.

True, there’s been plenty of idle, late night bar-chatter about Nick’s leadership, but not so much of a sniff of an actual move to snuff him out. No matter what the polls currently say – or even our LibDemVoice members’ survey showing Nick’s ratings are negative for the first time – he has at least another year’s grace to turn things around. And quite right too. I’m a fan of Nick’s, but even if I weren’t I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy what he’s had to endure these past two years.

Meanwhile an attempt to have the party endorse some form of Plan B was overwhelmingly rejected by the conference. Not that the party took any chances, wheeling out the big guns – Tim Farron, Jo Swinson, Steve Webb – to protect Danny Alexander, along with the Coalition’s faltering deficit reduction plan. In reality, of course, the Coalition is gradually edging towards a Plan B, but that’s the last thing that can be admitted in our doublespeak political world. So Lib Dem members voted for Danny’s motion retaining the fiscal mandate, which in turn means – in the topsy-turvy Alice in Wonderland world – Danny is now better positioned to break the fiscal mandate on his own terms.

So Nick Clegg stays, Plan A (ish) stays. We know what the critics will say: the party has signed its own death warrant. Maybe.

But the Lib Dems are hoping against hope that this half-way stage of the parliament marks the nadir of our fortunes. If, and it remains a big if, Nick Clegg’s fees apology earns him even a little credit with those voters willing to give him a second hearing a big sigh of relief will be exhaled. If, and it remains a big if, the economy begins to recover even a little there will be an even bigger sigh of relief.

Liberals are, by nature, optimists. Which is really just as well because none of us knows if either of these two hopes are forlorn or far-sighted. But for now at least the Lib Dems are following Ronald Reagan’s famous injunction: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”