Nick Clegg has just battled his way through a rather more grumpy than usual question-and-answer session at the Lib Dem spring conference. Normally, these sessions are an opportunity for the party to let off steam – they’re obviously far more robust than the sort of thing you’ll see in the House of Commons as they involve party members complaining about things that worry them, rather than telling Clegg how pleased they are with the Coalition’s record. And normally Clegg performs well: Q&A sessions are his strength.
But this was a more robust session than usual, with considerably more steam: activists weren’t just anxious and keen to grill their leader, they were grumpy. They were particularly annoyed with the way the Lib Dem leader dealt with their questions about secret courts, and after a series of questions about benefit reforms, one member stood up and shouted a complaint that the conference wasn’t getting enough time to discuss serious reforms.
Clegg was playing tough guy with his party. He is clearly – and understandably – a little concerned that they are struggling with the reality of government, and implicit in his remarks was a suggestion that really, they’re just expecting a bit too much when it comes to secret courts in particular. He told the conference floor that there had been some ‘hyperbolic’ claims about the legislation, telling them that it didn’t apply to criminal trials.
One activist grew rather angry as he asked his question. ‘How can we call ourselves a Liberal Democratic party?’ he asked Clegg. Clegg insisted that the party had done everything it could, given the constraints of Coalition. Actually, what activists want is for the party to vote against the second part of the bill, which it hasn’t done. There is only one small stage left in the Bill’s passage through parliament, ping-pong, where the Lords will consider amendments made in the Commons, so that rebellion bird has flown.
Jo Shaw, who has led the anti-secret courts campaign for the party, tells me she disagrees with Clegg’s arguments. ‘We never suggested it applied to criminal proceedings,’ she insists. ‘I don’t accept that our arguments are hyperbolic, I think our arguments are used on the principle of fair trial.’
The secret courts emergency motion has been picked for debate for tomorrow, along with one on Leveson. Both will be interesting. The secret courts motion is likely to get pretty rowdy, given the late stage in the legislation.
But Clegg is going to want to have a few more of these sorts of face-offs with his party in the next year or so. What he wants to do is to make the Lib Dems appear responsible rather than idealistic in government. This is an important contrast with the Labour party for 2015, even if it does produce some shout conference sessions.