Love your coalition partner all the time in public: that was the clear line taken by Nick Clegg, reinforced by other senior party figures and not challenged directly in any high profile way during conference (save for one question during the Nick Clegg Q&A). And yet… whether or not the party should let its strong debates with the Conservatives within the coalition show a little more in public was widely talked about in the margins all through conference. Conference was a missed opportunity to get wider agreement on the party’s approach. Even if more open and explicit discussion had not resulted in a change of tack, the very act of discussing helps keep parties united just as holding the special conference in May was the right move.
As I wrote in the half-time update, “debated on Monday morning, conference made clear its dislike of what the policies are doing”. Suggesting subsequently that conference did not really understand the issue it was voting on was not, however, a good move by Nick Clegg.
The good news was Nick Clegg’s clear commitment to electoral reform in the Saturday evening rally, backed-up by evident commitment through the party machine to working hard on the campaign. The less good news was the intention to wait until 2015 for the first elections for a reformed Upper House which is good news for minor parties, unelected politicians and those who dislike election expense controls.
On this the party’s ministers found their message during conference: linking changes with welfare with action on tax, as in Danny Alexander’s speech:
On welfare, he said the underlying principle should be, “Work for those who can. Proper support for those who cannot,” before going on to add “We must ensure that every tax bill is paid in full”, deriding tax dodging as an unacceptable lifestyle choice that takes money away from those who need it more and is “morally indefensible”.
Taking action on tax is, in itself, a good a move; linking the messaging with other policy decisions is good politics.
The Trident emergency motion’s double victory – first in the ballot to be debated and then in the debate itself – will reinforce the party’s hand in coalition talks on the issue. The likely compromise emerging is to delay any decision on replacing Trident until after 2015. As a solo Conservative (or indeed Labour) government would have pressed ahead with a like-for-like replacement, this will let Liberal Democrats rightly point to the coalition resulting in a policy decision being stopped. But it will also let hawks in the Conservative Party hope to return to the issue via the ballot box at the next general election.
The spending review
In his speech, Nick Clegg presented a good case on spending cuts:
I’ve heard some people say that the cuts we are making are somehow taking Britain back to the 1980s, or the 1930s. Dismantling the state. It isn’t true. Even when all the cuts have happened, we will still be spending 41% of our national income – the same amount we were spending in 2006.
The problem is that the message on cuts has been inconsistent, from talking them up, to talking about how cuts that sound big aren’t so big when you work out what it means per year, to now this. The final message is a good, simple one, but with most people paying little attention to the detail of politics and with their views already set by previous coverage, is it also a message that is too late?
Party President election
Susan Kramer looked to have the edge in early organisation and popularity over Tim Farron, with grassroots activist Jennie Rigg also hoping to stand. Whether the final ballot has two or three names on it, this will give members a more meaningful choice than in many Presidential elections and I suspect many will find it much harder to choose who to vote for than in previous ones.
One notable sign which, as far as I’m aware, no journalist picked up on is the tone of the presidential campaign literature so far. If the pre-conference media stories about how the party was facing splits and unhappiness over the coalition were right, you might have expected to find at least one candidate in this contest echoing that in their messages. At the moment, none are.
How much will how many journalists have learnt?
So far, not many and not much is the answer – as the lack of insight into the Party President election (see above) shows and as Stuart Bonar nicely illustrates in his blog post. Many of the journalists once they had been at conference realised their predictions and reality were rather at odds and adjusted their tone accordingly, though by no means all. And the least said about some of the ITN coverage the better, so woefully bad was it at mis-reporting the mood of conference.
On the credit side, Andrew Sparrow – already a well-regarded political journalist – looks to be joining the ranks of those who also understand the Liberal Democrats, as his ‘10 things I’ve learned‘ list showed.
Has any minister gone native?
So far, so good – doesn’t look like it.
A joker in the (emergency) pack
I originally wrote that “I would be amazed if I have got my list 100% correct, so expect at least one issue to flare up – perhaps as a result of an emergency motion criticising the decisions of a Conservative minister”. Well, count me slightly amazed. Although there is plenty else that happened at conference, even with the advantage now of hindsight the first nine points still look to me the key ones.