Lib Dem conference rallies are always a little like spending Christmas with a family you don’t know: quite baffling but rather endearing. There’s the uncle who tells the same jokes every year (Paddy Ashdown, telling the conference that he’d been asked in the street by a ‘little man’ whether he ‘used to be Paddy Ashdown’ – mercifully the members found it hilarious, again), some confusing singing (an award-winning a cappella group who kept the delegates giggling by singing ‘stuck in the middle’), a bit of sweariness (Ashdown, again, claiming the Libs were ‘too nice’ and didn’t have any ‘proper shits’) and things that just don’t make sense unless you’re part of that family (a Lib Dem activist on stage telling the audience that she was ‘starstruck to go campaigning with Baroness Ludford’).
But alongside Ashdown firing up the membership with talk of the nasty Tories and the need to walk as though into gunfire and so on and so forth, there was also a surprisingly energetic rally speech from Nick Clegg, who unlike the other two Westminster party leaders doesn’t appear at all tired after the referendum. He even managed to tell the conference, which is taking place in one of the cities that voted ‘yes’ on 18 September, that the victory for the ‘no’ camp was theirs.
He also had some very good lines, including his insistence on ‘fair votes, not Tory votes’ when it comes to devolution and reform of the Westminster voting system (a line Ed Miliband could have done with when everyone kept asking him over and over again about it during his conference). He asked the conference to imagine what life would be like if the Tories were in government on their own, with David Cameron ‘trapped between being a poor man’s Margaret Thatcher and a rich man’s Nigel Farage’. He ridiculed Ed Miliband for forgetting the deficit, saying it was a bit like going for a job as a lifeguard and forgetting to mention whether you could swim. And he returned to his usual refrain about the Lib Dems ensuring that Labour doesn’t wreck the economy and stopping the Tories from creating an unfair recovery.
These rallies are supposed to get the activists going, and Clegg certainly did that job very well. But one of the challenges for the Deputy Prime Minister this week (as well as trying to get some attention at the end of a long conference season that started with the excitement of the referendum and could seem to be reaching an anti-climax this week in the SECC) is to give a sense of Lib Dem identity, and of the party’s priorities for a coalition government with either Labour or the Tories – and that will require more than a few good jokes and a list of things the Lib Dems have stopped.