At the beginning of the conference season I mused on Twitter that these occasions
were very tribal, but that I had never been able to work out what defined the Liberal Democrat tribe. I was bombarded by suggestions. Iain Martin bluntly wrote: “What is the Lib Dem tribe?
Answer: A lot smaller than it used to be.” Andrew Boff, the Tory London Assembly member said, naughtily: “It depends on who they are talking to.” Peter Beaumont drew on his
experience as a foreign correspondent to paint a horrifying picture: “all sandals and penis gourds”. And Max Wind-Cowie pointed out what Nick Clegg himself recognises as a problem:
“Perhaps surprisingly an almost exclusively white, male & middle class tribe. Unlike either the Tory tribe or the Labour.”
These tweets were all sent prior to the conference and as it draws to a close there is a general consensus that something has changed. It has certainly become more professional, to the extent that
almost nothing of interest was said or debated on the conference floor. The highlight for me was watching Lynne Featherstone (fast becoming the Lib Dems’ best asset) ticking off James Landale
for being a misery guts. But that was just showbiz. There were a few more black and Asian faces at conference this year but most debates and fringes were a symphony of pinky-greyishness.
The machine had clearly instructed every minister to use the phrase: “Thanks to the Liberal Democrat influence in the coalition…”
Only a Liberal Democrat politician could utter the lines “I have a dream that one day all bus users will have executive lounges” as I heard during the debate on well-being. But it was a
relief to finally hear some dissent when a delegate pointed out that a debate on well-being isn’t a debate at all. "This is not a debate it is self-congratulation. We are fiddling while
Rome burns. We are political Stepford Wives," she said.
Ultimately though, despite the hard choices of government and their new professionalism, I get the feeling the Liberal Democrats still want to be liked. I tested the new Liberal Democrats at a
fringe meeting on the subject of violent extremism hosted by the Community Security Trust. I attack the iconic cuddly liberal Simon Hughes for his support of an anti-Zionist fringe group and
condemned the party for making common cause with Islamists in some parts of the country in the chase for votes. They clapped politely.
I realise the Lib Dems can be dirty street fighters in local politics but at conference they remain the Tribe of Nice.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.