Day one of the Lib Dem conference, and the Tory jokes have started. At a lunchtime fringe event, of Labour and Lib Dems, the lights suddenly faded out and the room was plunged into darkness. ‘This must be the Tory cuts!’ said Ming Campbell, and the panel discussion continued by the gloomy light of the fire escape signs. It was a fairly jovial affair, but the mixture of names – Sir Ming, Jon Cruddas, Jo Swinson and Andrew Adonis – raised the deadly serious proposition of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition after the next election.
Cruddas sounded slightly off-message when he described the Liberal Democrats as the ‘benign’ force in the Coalition, preferring instead to criticise the direction of the Conservative party, particularly that being forged by its newest MPs in books such as Britannia Unchained, which he described as ‘frightening’. But there was plenty of polite animosity towards Labour, too, with Ming Campbell describing hostile emotions which ‘run deep’ between Labour and the Lib Dems. Swinson also attacked the assumption that Labour made in the run-up to 2010 that the Lib Dems were one of theirs.
There’s sill a sense that for all their energetic promotion of the idea of coalition. that the Lib Dems still haven’t quite worked out how they expect coalition to work: is it a partnership that appears very consensual, at least to the public, as the 1990-07 Lib-Lab coalition was in Scotland? Or is it an aggressive exchange of ideas and opinions, as now seems to be the case?
Swinson is duty-bound now (and probably would have said this at any stage in her parliamentary career) that the consensual relationship is a good one, but Campbell took an interesting line when responding to Adonis’ argument that Liberal Democrats should be pushing for a plan ‘B’. He argued that the consequences of arguing for a Plan ‘B’ in May 2010 would have been ‘disastrous’. For Sir Ming, the economic purpose of the coalition has always trumped any other concerns.
Interestingly for a Lib-Lab panel, no-one called for Nick Clegg’s head, or even made hints that the leader should consider his position as the 2015 election draws nearer. Campbell called for the ‘scuttlebutt and gossip’ to be ‘put to rest once and for all’, clearly endorsing Clegg, and calling for his parliamentary colleagues to follow suit.Tags: Coalition, Liberal Democrat conference 2012, UK politics