Now the Lib Dems have finally reached the end of their autumn conference in Brighton, here’s a summary of the most important points from the week:
1. The Lib Dems will struggle to work with Ed Balls in the event of a possible Lib-Lab pact in 2015. Nick Clegg made this clear in his speech this afternoon, repeatedly attacking the shadow chancellor by name.
2. Nick Clegg wants to pull his party with him into demonstrating that coalition works. The proalition-style announcement in his speech about catch-up tuition for school children was a demonstration of how two-party government can be very effective, while his tough talking on the party no longer being a comfortable protest vote was designed to scold those on the outside – and any unhappy delegates on the inside – for wailing that the party is in government.
3. The Liberal Democrat party is united on pursuing the government’s plan A for the economy. Clegg’s team are very keen to remind us all of the vote earlier this week which endorsed that policy, and of the resounding defeat for the amendment which called for a change of course.
4. All the language at this conference has suggested that if the OBR figures suggest that the government will not meet its debt target without stringent cuts, then the Lib Dems will want to drop that target rather than going for more cuts.
5. The leadership has opened up what could become a bitter divide with the grassroots on the Justice and Security Bill. MPs and peers have been instructed by members to oppose the legislation in parliament, but the three parliamentarians who spoke in the debate yesterday all suggested that the legislation should pass. It will be interesting to see how the grassroots campaign on the issue of closed courts grows, and whether the leadership has learned any lessons from the row over the Health and Social Care Bill.
6. Clegg and his colleagues are aware of the horror with which the grassroots regard any future welfare cuts, and there is continuing disquiet about reforms to disability benefits, too. The Deputy Prime Minister’s words on the 45p rate of tax being the lowest the government will go in this parliament shows that the party will now push for a mansion tax or a wealth tax in exchange for further welfare cuts, rather than as quid pro quo for tax cuts for high earners.
7. The party’s 2015 manifesto may well include a pledge to reform universal benefits such as the winter fuel payment and free bus passes in some way. Clegg made it clear that it would be difficult to end universal eligibility for these benefits before then, but as we’ve already reported, work is underway on how the winter fuel payment could become more efficient. The party is clearly positioning itself as one that can make public spending productive, and abolishing welfare payments to rich pensioners will be one example of that.
8. The reason that the mood this week has been surprisingly upbeat is that there is still a good chance that the Liberal Democrats could end up back in government again. In many ways, they would be far more frightened if the Tories were 10 points ahead in the polls rather than Labour.
9. The environment is a key area of differentiation between the two coalition parties. That Ed Davey was king of the fringe meetings, popping up everywhere for panel discussions and interviews, was one indication of how important the party feels it is to hold its nerve against the Conservatives on this area. Clegg roused a good cheer and many appreciative laughs in the conference hall when he joked that ‘to make blue go green you have to add yellow, and that’s exactly what we’re doing’. They are also clearly making a pitch to lost Cameroon voters who wonder whether voting blue to go green in 2010 was a waste.
10. The leadership positioning has started in earnest, though none of it was actively disloyal this week. Ed Davey’s omnipresence at the fringe was one example of his attempt to make a name for himself, as was his interview with Gary Gibbon. Vince Cable was also clearly setting out his stall a little more in his own speech this week.
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