Lib Dem conference closes: What the papers say…

by Stephen Tall on September 27, 2012

Plenty of comment in today’s papers about this week’s Lib Dem conference and Nick Clegg’s speech. Here’s a selection of views…

Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph)

I suspect we are going to have to start talking about a Lib Dem recovery at some point. No, really. Nick Clegg’s speech completed a fairly successful week for the Deputy Prime Minister. The polls are still terrible, and his prospects might look bleak, but as Dan Hodges argued earlier, Labour’s support is soft and as we close on the election, the economy picks up and Labour’s deficiencies come under scrutiny, their position can only improve. Andrew Mitchell’s implosion has done great damage to the Tories, which helped the Lib Dems no end this week: with the Conservatives silenced, Mr Clegg was able to get his fairer taxes/soak the rich message up in lights, and it’s gaining traction. Their conference has passed off with scarcely a hitch – the party voted overwhelmingly to back the Coalition’s economic policy – and even Mr Clegg’s apology-turned-music-video is turning out to have done less damage than we Westminster cynics predicted. His point about facing the awkward truths that come with power was applauded loudly: combined with the economic vote, it’s a welcome sign of maturity. We leave Brighton too with a clear sense of how the general election will be played out. The Lib Dems will repeat their strategy of equidistance between the main parties, leaving the way open to a Coalition Pt 2 after the next election.

Polly Toynbee (The Guardian)

Boasting they are “anchored in the centre-ground”, Clegg suffers the old delusion of the middle. “If you’re attacked by Liam Fox on one side and Ed Balls from the other, you’re in the right place,” as if navigating by splitting the difference between flat and round earthers. “Our mettle has been tested” in making difficult and painful decisions. What he didn’t say was whose mettle has been tested most – not Lib Dem politicians but all those whose benefits, services and jobs are cut by his “harsh realities of government”, the bottom half most.

Editorial (The Independent)

To have any significant political future, Liberal Democrats must be able to believe that they have made a Conservative-led Government behave differently. And while some might argue that they have helped Mr Cameron more than they have constrained him –by giving him political cover for policies unpopular with his Eurosceptic right wing – Mr Clegg can justifiably claim that the Liberal Democrats will not come away from their spell in government empty-handed. Whether he can convince all his party faithful of this, let alone wavering voters, however, is another matter. There will be those – the party’s president, Tim Farron, apparently among them – who feel that he could have pushed harder on tuition fees. But on income tax thresholds, on schools (the pupil premium) and on the green agenda, the Liberal Democrats have the beginnings of a record to defend. In his speech yesterday, Mr Clegg indicated lines that he would not be prepared to cross – tax fairness and green energy among them.

Patrick Kingsley (The Guardian)

Twice a year since the last election, journalists have descended on the Lib Dem conference hoping to cover a civil war. This week, hopes were higher still. Trevor Smith, a Lib Dem peer, had damned Clegg as a “cork bobbing in the waves”. Lord Matthew Oakeshott – a close ally of Vince Cable – whacks Clegg for fun. New polls suggest half of party members are dissatisfied with Clegg. Cable looms in the wings. The assassin in the fedora. But a bloodbath, much to the media’s disappointment, this is not. Up and down the shore, someone has posted a rash of yellow posters that rage against the Lib Dems’ alliance with the Tories. “Ruin The Lib Dems’ Weekend,” they say. “COMBAT WORKFARE.” Here and there, inside the conference, there are flashes of a similar fury. But they’re hard to find at first.

John Kampfner (The Guardian)

In mocking Liam Fox and Ed Balls in equal measure, labelling them both as on the extreme, Clegg was emulating Tony Blair and his strategy of triangulation. Take two opposites and plonk yourself in the middle. Blair’s approach worked wonders initially, but it soon led to public distrust. What Clegg needed to do this time was to say: “this is where I stand. These are the values I espouse, whether or not you agree with them. They are neither left, right nor middle. They are distinctive”. This is his urgent task for the next 12 months. By next autumn, with all parties looking directly ahead at the general election, the success or failure of economic plan A, A minus or A plus will be much clearer. Clegg’s future will be much clearer too.

Editorial (Daily Telegraph)

Mr Clegg focused almost exclusively on the economy, and his stance was unyielding. … The numbers spoke for themselves. Even after the current cuts, by the end of this parliament public spending will still account for 42 per cent of GDP – more than at any time under Tony Blair’s premiership. Over the past 50 years, the economy has grown three-fold but welfare spending has grown seven-fold. We are now borrowing £1 billion every three days to keep the country afloat. The interest paid on this mountainous deficit exceeds the entire education budget. Such an unvarnished assessment of the scale of our economic plight must have been unsettling for a party that has never shown an inclination to dwell in the real world. It struck a welcome contrast to the frankly juvenile proposals that emerged earlier in the week – their beloved “mansion tax” or the removal of universal benefits for pensioners. Both targeted, naturally, only millionaires. It is hard to know what is more depressing about such crowd-pleasers – their economic illiteracy or their spite. And while they may be pie in the sky, the country is clearly being softened up for a wealth tax of some sort.

Steve Richard (The Independent)

Nick Clegg’s speech to his party’s conference was one of solid, determined resolution. As such, the short address was more significant than it seemed, containing important indications of his future intentions in terms of both strategy and his own leadership. Anyone who still believes Clegg might stand down voluntarily before the next election should think again. The address conveyed his determination to fight the 2015 campaign, implying that if he were to walk away before then it would be an act of weakness that would undermine his party’s new distinctive pitch, that it is now a party of government capable of staying the course and facing the tough choices of power.

Editorial (The Guardian)

The deputy PM has long had a distinctive view of where he wants the Liberal Democrats to be – defined as much against clunky and centralised social democracy, as against social reaction. That was always a controversial, perhaps even a minority, position within the party. For all his problems and dire polling, he reaffirmed this without inhibition. He was perhaps more dismissive about critics within the hall than ever before. Tellingly, he borrowed a favourite phrase of Peter Mandelson, and likened the yearning for an alternative to austerity as the equivalent of saying “stop the world, I want to get off”. If Mr Clegg airs the same frustration with disgruntled Lib Dems that the New Labourites once felt about the old left then that is perhaps because he is convinced that he is in a propitious place. He regards the opposition as in denial about the deficit, and senses the post-reshuffle Tories leaning to the right. But the calculation that this leaves ample space for his brand of centrism is questionable, to say the least.

Vicky Pryce (The Guardian)

Truth is that many of the new Lib Dem proposals for a fairer tax system – such as a mansion tax or the attack on safe havens – will raise very little and will not reduce the need for further welfare cuts later on in this parliament. The Lib Dems will be able to differentiate themselves if they make the case for what must eventually happen: further public sector borrowing at cheap rates to allow major infrastructure spending that is needed to push the economy forward. As Nick Clegg said: “If we secure our country’s future we will secure our own”. But if the economy flops, the Lib Dems will be the big losers. I am not sure he or the party have realised how big.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.