What a week for the LibDems. The conference began, as always, with the sound newspapers being arranged across sleeping faces as the mass snore-in started. A few hopeful souls wondered if the LibDems might finally tell us exactly what their party is for. And LibDems went about their usual business of behaving like some cuddly cult for Terribly Nice People. Then everything changed. Out came their true colours and they started scrapping in the sand-pit like a pack of ruthless cockerels.
It began with Nick Clegg’s misuse of the word ‘savage’ in reference to cuts. It got worse when Vince ‘Capability’ Cable announced a muddled new levy on million-pound houses. At a stroke the Mansion-Muncher had jeopardised every Liberal Democrat vote in Greater London. Then Evan Harris used his platform speech to make a sly and witty attack on Clegg. And last night, in a BBC interview, Ming Campbell accused Harris to his face of being ‘unhelpful’. ‘Unhelpful’! From Ming that’s the equivalent of carving open Harris’s skull and eating his brains on TV.
Today Nick Clegg had plenty to do. With his party acting like a pack of chimpanzees testing a jar of itching powder, he needed to reassert his authority, remind the faithful why they chose him and quell any doubts about his leadership. He did all this and a lot more. He seems to have been to a political finishing school and learned some useful campaigning tricks. Don’t be too negative. Whiners aren’t winners. Although he complained a little about how hopeless the other parties were, he did so with a light touch and a helpless shrug. He emphasised positive action instead. Ditch Trident, cut 150 MPs, raise the lowest tax threshold to £10k, scrap ID cards to fund 10,000 more policemen and turn the Lords into an elected chamber. Wow! Lots of changes there. Novelty can scare people unless it’s linked with continuity so Clegg reminded the audience of his party’s glorious tradition.
Discovering some elasticity with the respect to the truth, he told us that Palmerston founded the human rights movement and Beveridge was the author of the NHS. He even dared to mention that the world’s first state pension was introduced by Lloyd-George. It’s a brave LibDem who mentions the Welsh Wizard (‘Peerages ten bob. Three for a guinea’) but this was a speech brimming with boldness. He also made good use of the rhetorical figure which orators call ‘clobbering them over the head with a slogan until they start repeating it in their sleep.’ The slogan wasn’t brilliant but it’ll do for now. ‘The beginning of real change in Britain.’ And ‘real change’ is to be contrasted with the ‘fake change’ offered by the Tories.
The speech was full of excellent details and some memorable phrases which Clegg, and his writers, have a fine ear for. The national debt is rising by ‘£5,500 per second.’ He disapproves of ‘salami slicing’ budgets. On the environment he reminded us that ‘you can’t stop the weather at the cliffs of Dover.’ And he claimed that ‘The Tories want to inherit power, I want us to earn it.’ With solemn conviction he appealed directly to the sceptics who think the LibDems are a lot of bicycling vegans in nasty jumpers. ‘If you don’t think we’re contenders I urge you to think again.’ He imagined each of his front bench team in power and told us what they would they would do in Whitehall, on the opening day, during their very first minutes in office. This was an imaginative and highly effective way of demonstrating his sincerity about gaining power. He finished by repeating his soundbite and the hall rose for the ritual ovation. But he wasn’t finished yet. Instead of standing there like the spare coconut at a shy, he leapt off his perch and trotted over to embrace his lovely wife (all the lovelier for being the only attractive female anywhere at the conference.). He then launched himself into the first row of the audience like Michael Owen celebrating a 97th minute winner. He manfully pumped the hands of the chaps, and, equally manfully, air-kissed the rouged cheeks of the swooning womenfolk. The cheers continued, the speakers thrummed with stirring orchestral music and flashlights popped all around him. As three news crews jostling to record his every movement, Clegg swept towards the exit with his wife and after a three minute ten second ovation, they disappeared into a tunnel. What did they do after that? Don’t know. Pizza Hut, maybe. It doesn’t matter. The great thing is that a LibDem leader has finally spotted that he has a problem. He’s joined a silly party instead of a serious party and he’s decided the only thing to do is to turn the silly party into a serious party. Good for him. He’ll be changing the name next. I believe there was once a movement in British politics called, ‘The Liberal Party’. Continuity and innovation. It might work.