The only line of Nick Clegg’s speech that drew whoops from the hall was the announcement that Paddy Ashdown was returning to run the 2015 general election campaign. The enthusiasm was testament to the affection that the grassroots of the party still have for their former leader.
The appointment tells us several intriguing things about the internal state of the Liberal Democrats. That Clegg felt the need to announce who was running the next election campaign at this conference, more than two years out from the date of the next general election, shows he’s keen to do everything he can to demonstrate that he is going to lead the party into that election.
Ashdown’s appointment is also particularly interesting given that before the reshuffle, he urged Clegg to give David Laws a roving economic brief so that he had someone independent of the Treasury giving him advice on the economy. Friends say that Ashdown feels that Clegg has become too reliant on Danny Alexander, who is—according to his critics—too inclined to take the Treasury view on matters. It seems safe to assume that Ashdown’s appointment will see Laws, his successor as MP for Yeovil, become even more influential.
The leadership also hopes that having Ashdown in this role will reassure activists during what is bound to be a difficult campaign for the party. Ashdown’s media experience, and penchant for early rises, means that he should be able to handle six weeks of morning press conferences with greater ease than most.