Lib Dem conference closes: What the papers say…

Plenty of comment in today’s papers about this week’s Lib Dem conference and Nick Clegg’s speech. Here’s a selection of views…

Benedict Brogan (Daily Telegraph)

I suspect we are going to have to start talking about a Lib Dem recovery at some point. No, really. Nick Clegg’s speech completed a fairly successful week for the Deputy Prime Minister. The polls are still terrible, and his prospects might look bleak, but as Dan Hodges argued earlier, Labour’s support is soft and as we close on the election, the economy picks up and Labour’s deficiencies come under scrutiny, their position can only improve. Andrew Mitchell’s implosion has done great damage to the Tories, which helped the Lib Dems no end this week: with the Conservatives silenced, Mr Clegg was able to get his fairer taxes/soak the rich message up in lights, and it’s gaining traction. Their conference has passed off with scarcely a hitch – the party voted overwhelmingly to back the Coalition’s economic policy – and even Mr Clegg’s apology-turned-music-video is turning out to have done less damage than we Westminster cynics predicted. His point about facing the awkward truths that come with power was applauded loudly: combined with the economic vote, it’s a welcome sign of maturity. We leave Brighton too with a clear sense of how the general election will be played out. The Lib Dems will repeat their strategy of equidistance between the main parties, leaving the way open to a Coalition Pt 2 after the next election.

Polly Toynbee (The Guardian)

Boasting they are “anchored in the centre-ground”, Clegg suffers the old delusion of the middle. “If you’re attacked by Liam Fox on one side and Ed Balls from the other, you’re in the right place,” as if navigating by splitting the difference between flat and round earthers. “Our mettle has been tested” in making difficult and painful decisions. What he didn’t say was whose mettle has been tested most – not Lib Dem politicians but all those whose benefits, services and jobs are cut by his “harsh realities of government”, the bottom half most.

Editorial (The Independent)

To have any significant political future, Liberal Democrats must be able to believe that they have made a Conservative-led Government behave differently. And while some might argue that they have helped Mr Cameron more than they have constrained him –by giving him political cover for policies unpopular with his Eurosceptic right wing – Mr Clegg can justifiably claim that the Liberal Democrats will not come away from their spell in government empty-handed. Whether he can convince all his party faithful of this, let alone wavering voters, however, is another matter. There will be those – the party’s president, Tim Farron, apparently among them – who feel that he could have pushed harder on tuition fees. But on income tax thresholds, on schools (the pupil premium) and on the green agenda, the Liberal Democrats have the beginnings of a record to defend. In his speech yesterday, Mr Clegg indicated lines that he would not be prepared to cross – tax fairness and green energy among them.

Patrick Kingsley (The Guardian)

Twice a year since the last election, journalists have descended on the Lib Dem conference hoping to cover a civil war. This week, hopes were higher still. Trevor Smith, a Lib Dem peer, had damned Clegg as a “cork bobbing in the waves”. Lord Matthew Oakeshott – a close ally of Vince Cable – whacks Clegg for fun. New polls suggest half of party members are dissatisfied with Clegg. Cable looms in the wings. The assassin in the fedora. But a bloodbath, much to the media’s disappointment, this is not. Up and down the shore, someone has posted a rash of yellow posters that rage against the Lib Dems’ alliance with the Tories. “Ruin The Lib Dems’ Weekend,” they say. “COMBAT WORKFARE.” Here and there, inside the conference, there are flashes of a similar fury. But they’re hard to find at first.

John Kampfner (The Guardian)

In mocking Liam Fox and Ed Balls in equal measure, labelling them both as on the extreme, Clegg was emulating Tony Blair and his strategy of triangulation. Take two opposites and plonk yourself in the middle. Blair’s approach worked wonders initially, but it soon led to public distrust. What Clegg needed to do this time was to say: “this is where I stand. These are the values I espouse, whether or not you agree with them. They are neither left, right nor middle. They are distinctive”. This is his urgent task for the next 12 months. By next autumn, with all parties looking directly ahead at the general election, the success or failure of economic plan A, A minus or A plus will be much clearer. Clegg’s future will be much clearer too.

Editorial (Daily Telegraph)

Mr Clegg focused almost exclusively on the economy, and his stance was unyielding. … The numbers spoke for themselves. Even after the current cuts, by the end of this parliament public spending will still account for 42 per cent of GDP – more than at any time under Tony Blair’s premiership. Over the past 50 years, the economy has grown three-fold but welfare spending has grown seven-fold. We are now borrowing £1 billion every three days to keep the country afloat. The interest paid on this mountainous deficit exceeds the entire education budget. Such an unvarnished assessment of the scale of our economic plight must have been unsettling for a party that has never shown an inclination to dwell in the real world. It struck a welcome contrast to the frankly juvenile proposals that emerged earlier in the week – their beloved “mansion tax” or the removal of universal benefits for pensioners. Both targeted, naturally, only millionaires. It is hard to know what is more depressing about such crowd-pleasers – their economic illiteracy or their spite. And while they may be pie in the sky, the country is clearly being softened up for a wealth tax of some sort.

Steve Richard (The Independent)

Nick Clegg’s speech to his party’s conference was one of solid, determined resolution. As such, the short address was more significant than it seemed, containing important indications of his future intentions in terms of both strategy and his own leadership. Anyone who still believes Clegg might stand down voluntarily before the next election should think again. The address conveyed his determination to fight the 2015 campaign, implying that if he were to walk away before then it would be an act of weakness that would undermine his party’s new distinctive pitch, that it is now a party of government capable of staying the course and facing the tough choices of power.

Editorial (The Guardian)

The deputy PM has long had a distinctive view of where he wants the Liberal Democrats to be – defined as much against clunky and centralised social democracy, as against social reaction. That was always a controversial, perhaps even a minority, position within the party. For all his problems and dire polling, he reaffirmed this without inhibition. He was perhaps more dismissive about critics within the hall than ever before. Tellingly, he borrowed a favourite phrase of Peter Mandelson, and likened the yearning for an alternative to austerity as the equivalent of saying “stop the world, I want to get off”. If Mr Clegg airs the same frustration with disgruntled Lib Dems that the New Labourites once felt about the old left then that is perhaps because he is convinced that he is in a propitious place. He regards the opposition as in denial about the deficit, and senses the post-reshuffle Tories leaning to the right. But the calculation that this leaves ample space for his brand of centrism is questionable, to say the least.

Vicky Pryce (The Guardian)

Truth is that many of the new Lib Dem proposals for a fairer tax system – such as a mansion tax or the attack on safe havens – will raise very little and will not reduce the need for further welfare cuts later on in this parliament. The Lib Dems will be able to differentiate themselves if they make the case for what must eventually happen: further public sector borrowing at cheap rates to allow major infrastructure spending that is needed to push the economy forward. As Nick Clegg said: “If we secure our country’s future we will secure our own”. But if the economy flops, the Lib Dems will be the big losers. I am not sure he or the party have realised how big.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • What the papers say – The Guardian (5), Daily Telegraph (2), The Independent (2).

    That’s not exactly a rounded view, nor is it representative of what the membership reads.

    Come on Stephen, you’re standards are slipping. Let’s have some balance, please, what have the other papers said?

  • Paul McKeown 27th Sep '12 - 7:51pm

    @judy beatrix

    I profoundly disagree. Whilst it is true that the LDs need to have positive achievements to justify their place in government, it is also true that if the LDs are not seen to have restrained the Conservatives from implementing policies opposed by 70% or more of the electorate, then they will be thoroughly punished by the electorate.

  • @Paul McKeown

    But how is the public to know how nasty the Tories would have been without the Lib Dems? It’s not possible to prove a negative. It’s a real problem.

    In fact, many people think the Tories in Coalition are being plenty nasty enough in relation to the disabled. Heard on the news today that a young disabled man has committed suicide.

  • @phyllis

    “But how is the public to know how nasty the Tories would have been without the Lib Dems? It’s not possible to prove a negative. It’s a real problem.”

    We can point out what the Tory backbenchers say and do, given that they spend a lot of time whining that Cameron doesn’t listen to them (i.e. they can’t hold him to ransom like they did with Major).

    One thing the coalition brings is that there is fertile ground in prising away anyone sympathetic to One Nation Conservativism, given that this is effectively extinct in the 21st Century Tory Party.

  • @Oranjepan

    It would be more useful to see what Liberal Democrat voters read as well as the membership.

    I am surprised at Stephen’s omission of the view of The Sun’s political editor: primarily because it signals a distinct change of tone which ought to have been picked up, but also because it is the paper read by the largest number of people who voted for us at the 2010 general election.

    Tom Newton Dunn (The Sun)

    “NICK Clegg’s speech was brave and impressive.He confronted the nation’s overspending problems in a more direct way than any leader has dared before.Thanks to our ageing population and mushrooming debt mountain, this is the Herculean challenge of a generation to come — and someone has to grasp the nettle.For 18 months since his AV referendum defeat, Nice-Guy-Nick has been led around by the nose by his angry party.Finally, he looks to be leading them again. Clegg said: “The big prizes are for those with the courage and vision to get out in front, set the agenda and point the way.”How little love there was for him in Brighton was reinforced when mention of old leader Paddy Ashdown got the speech’s loudest cheer.By next year we’ll know if the party agrees with Clegg — or dumps him.”

  • @Paul McKeown
    Steve Coogan disagrees with you too. He clearly states that LibDems have moderated the tories in coalition, and he pointed to the discontent among tory backbenches as evidence to the fact.

    @Sean Blake
    that’s an interesting one, do you think Murdoch is hedging his bets considering the likelihood of another coalition after 2015 means the LibDems should be fancied to provide continuity in most outcomes of the general election, or is he trying to curry favour in the wake of Leveson?

  • @Oranjepan

    Not sure about your first point, but I guess that as long as Nick Clegg steers clear of saying anything nice about Labour he’s safe with The Sun, particularly now Murdoch’s orders seem to be to rough up Cameron a bit. It’s not a sea change and there is always the paper’s associate editor, Trevor Kavanagh, still ready to give Vince Cable a kicking at Conference and still unable to forgive him his remarks about the uber clan after BSkyB.
    However, the narrative may now be not to alienate every politician outside the 1922 Committee and UKIP pre-Leveson. I think I’d agree with you on that.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Sep '12 - 7:52pm


    But how is the public to know how nasty the Tories would have been without the Lib Dems? It’s not possible to prove a negative. It’s a real problem

    Yes, I think we should give the Tories some time to show what they would do without is before the next general election. That is one reason why I think it is essential for us to withdraw from the coalition well before the election.

    There seems to be a strange belief among many people that somehow the Liberal Democrats are responsible for the coalition so that every policy the government comes out with is just what the Liberal Democrats always wanted. Weirdly, there seems to be a thinking that if it were not for us, the Tories would be running a cosy almost social democrat government.

    I think we need to be quite open about this,saying to the people “OK, we are getting a lot of blame for what this government is doing, so now we’re going to withdraw form it so you can see what the Conservatives would give you if they didn’t have us around”. The Tory right would jump at this, because they really do believe their policies are popular and we are holding them back. Good – I would love to have the chance to see real competition open up between their vision and ours.

    Obviously the leadership strategy of exaggerating the real influence a junior partner with one sixth of the coalition MPs can have has not helped. Painting the current situation as arriving in the promised land, as Clegg made the centrepoint of his speech, is more of the poor strategy he keeps giving us.

  • George Howard 3rd Oct '12 - 10:45am

    Conference: “Fairer Taxes” now I know what that means. Wife just bought ticket to NZ to visit elderly mother,sisters and family next spring. Ticket £1100 with “Fare Tax” being £481. We as a family with two teenage children could not now consider making this trip! A family of four would have to pay almost £2000 in fare tax.
    Not surprising many airlines facing financial difficulties which could have detrimental effects on local economies and jobs.
    Fairer taxes, don’t think so.

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