In 19881 the Liberal Party was told by David Steel to “prepare for government.” It might have all ended in tears for them thirty years or so ago, but now the Lib Dems are part of the government of the country.
So you might have expected the party conference in Liverpool to be a cheerful place.
But Nick Clegg’s party are junior partners in a coalition government making massive spending cuts that many in the party oppose, and their opinion poll ratings are at the lowest they have been for many years.
The prospect of a new voting system, for so long the party’s Holy Grail, is close, but it’s not their favoured system that is on the table. And the price of this is support for a VAT rise that the party campaigned against, as well as seeing its MPs vote in favour of a whole raft of Tory policies that they would usually be expected to oppose.
The Lib Dems may have power, but many do not like the baggage that has come along with it.
One of Clegg’s own MPs, Mike Hancock, today called his leadership “a dictatorship.” He also accused the deputy prime minister of acting in a way that was unconstitutional, as the party in government has adopted policies that have not been approved within its own structures.
Yesterday Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, announced that action will be taken on tax evasion, which party leaders will have hoped prove popular with its left wing.
The plans, which have agreed with the Chancellor George Osborne, will mean the “ruthless” pursuit of tax evaders and those who use legal loopholes to minimise their tax bills. Guess he got the idea from my blog on the subject last week!
This is an interesting example of co-ordinated PR between the coalition partners. Alexander gets something to appease Lib Dems who are unhappy about cuts that will hit the poor hardest, while to Tories don’t have to announce measures that could hit many of their supporters, and indeed financial backers.
Later in the week the conference will debate an emergency motion on the future of Trident. In the election, the Lib Dems campaigned against replacing the programme but now in government things are different. They are committed to backing Tory plans to replace Trident but there has been talk that the government might delay a decision for financial reasons.
There has already been an embarrassment on the government’s schools policy in England today. The Lib Dem leadership were overwhelmingly defeated in a series of votes on the development of free schools and the expansion of academies in England.
This won’t change government policy in an area where the Tories lead however. Many Lib Dems have long been very critical of Michael Gove’s approach and handling of his brief, so this result is not a surprise, but will still come as a blow to Clegg.
And this afternoon Nick Clegg made his major speech to the conference. It was light on policy announcements and heavily defensive of his role in government. Clegg told his party that the government will “put the country on a better path”. He believes that his party would not have been taken seriously had they refused to deal with the Tories, choosing opposition instead.
Clegg also stressed that the deal with David Cameron will only last for the life of this parliament. He has previously stated that the two parties will fight against each other come the next general election. Clegg also held out the possibility of a future pact with Labour, although he attacked the last Labour government for the legacy it left.
It was a speech short of specifics, aimed primarily at an internal audience rather than an external one. Clegg had acknowledged before the conference started that the party’s leadership could be in for a “rough ride”, and called for potential critics to “grit their teeth and hold their nerve”. This message was central to his speech today.
Yesterday morning on the BBC, Clegg told Andrew Marr, “We are condemned to take some very difficult decisions.” His many critics would reply that it was him who precipitated the situation by choosing to back David Cameron in government.
Nick Clegg wants to be seen as a man taking difficult decisions for the good of the country, rather than as a politician who has thrown away his principles in return for a ministerial limo. He is playing a long game to establish his party as one that can deliver in government.
But can he persuade critics within his own party to remain calm as the cuts bite and the pressure builds?