by Stephen Tall on September 16, 2013
Lib Dem conference has spoken — and it has overwhelmingly backed Nick Clegg. Before the debate I had a hunch the result would be somewhat different. Though Nick had shrugged off a reported split with Vince Cable as “a storm in a tea cup”, I thought Vince’s obvious discontent with the decision to make this vote a test of strength, together with the assiduous ground-work and careful drafting of the Social Liberal Forum’s amendments, would pose a real problem for the party leadership.
And for the first third of the debate I thought my hunch might be fulfilled, with warm, loud applause greeting SLF’s Naomi Smith urging the party to vote against an “ideological merger” with the Tories. But throughout the week the leadership has been confidently predicting victory, and today it became clear why. The speeches by Lib Dem pensions minister Steve Webb, and in particular the passionate backing of party president Tim Farron — both MPs known to be on the social liberal wing of the party — proved decisive.
Tim’s scathing argument that there’s “nothing progressive about bottling out of hard decisions”, his invoking of those liberal lions Keynes and Beveridge, and his play to members’ fears that after three years of pain the party was about to turn its back on the gains of recovery (“what an irony at the eleventh hour if the Lib Dems get the jitters”) transformed the debate. From that moment on, there was little doubt that the party would back the leadership — both current and future.
It was a serious-minded debate, though not without its lighter moments… SLF’s Gareth Epps’ accidental entendre, “I want to touch on Ed Balls” triggered a tension-relieving snigger; Brian Matthews popped up to plug his fringe event. First-time speakers such as Katherine Bavage and Nick Thornsby gave confident performances.
With the clapometer in the hall showed him winning, Nick Clegg could afford to relax a little. But there was still a lot riding on his closing four-minute speech. Even a word out of place that suggested triumph or irritation and the win would have been tainted. But as “Nick Clegg from Sheffield” (as he was announced to the stage) began it was clear he’d made the right choice to conclude. He offered a quite masterful summing up: generous to those who’d tried to amend his motion, in control of the detail, passionate in his defence of Lib Dem values and independence. It reminded me (and I hope reminded the watching journalists who relish their sneering) quite how impressive he can be when he’s given a platform.
Nick Clegg deliberately ramped up this debate, made it a test of strength — not so much of his leadership, but of the party’s steely commitment to seeing the Coalition through to its logical conclusion. The Coalition Government’s economic policies have changed markedly since May 2010: the initial austerity has been relaxed to an almost Plan B extent. That’s partly the inevitability of the economic situation. It’s also in good part due to the influence of Lib Dems in government. And it’s that which Nick wanted the party to recognise by voting for the motion.
The public will barely notice the Lib Dem conference, still less which way we voted on the economy. For them, we are already associated with the decisions made within this Coalition Government, for better or worse. What Nick Clegg wanted to ensure is that the party re-affirmed its commitment to that process, lock, stock and barrel, that we stay all in it together. And he got his way.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.