There was quite a storm raging as the Liberal Democrats woke up on the Monday morning of their annual conference in Glasgow and there has been a general sense here of the party battening down the hatches for the inevitable storm that faces them in the coming General Election.
It not just the fact that the Lib Dems are low in the opinion polls that has them reaching for their bright orange cagouls and their storm proof sandals. Liberal Democrats are well used to polling badly between elections. They sing about the joy of losing deposits, with gusto at the Glee Club every year (to the tune of Waltzing Matilda, in case you were wondering.) Before they were in Government, Liberal Democrats used to look forward to general elections.Then they could dream, that once the Representation of the People Act kicked in, and they got the equal broadcast media airtime decreed by law, the people would see their wonderful liberal ideas and their ratings would rise to something more respectable by polling day. Indeed it was the equal coverage, and his excellent performance in the leaders’s debates that made Nick Clegg the Deputy Prime Minister last time round.
This time it will be very different. Liberal Democrats have not been short of news coverage during the last few years. Unfortunately, it has mostly featured them getting blamed for anything that has gone wrong in coalition government, rather than getting any credit for the things that have gone right. So Liberal Democrats are facing the next general election, rather like a child waiting outside the Headmasters office. They know it is going to be unpleasant and they just want to get it over and done with. Then perhaps they can re-group, re-think and re-build.
There is plenty going on at the conference of course. The small group of target seat candidates are working hard, getting up on the stage and delivering well crafted speeches that they can press release back to their local papers. I have heard one candidate deliver exactly the same speech attacking her local council’s financial incompetence in at least two separate conference debates on entirely unrelated subjects. No doubt the readers of her local paper will be hearing about it very soon. The prospective parliamentary candidates are bustling around the fringe busily recruiting fellow delegates to come and help them get elected in their particular little local battleground.
There are also a succession of young pretenders to the leadership, scrupulously loyal at all times, delivering speeches that have been slightly better prepared, slightly better rehearsed and slightly beyond their ministerial brief as they position themselves for the post-election shake down.
Tim Farron, Party President and leadership heir apparent delivered a cracking keynote speech, passionately claiming the NHS as a Liberal idea, that won a warm standing ovation, He used his call for a new, invigorated, forward-looking Liberal agenda for the next election, to not-so-subtly detach himself from the party’s record in government over the past few years.
Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was in energetic form and had perhaps a little more to say than usual on issues such as the economy. A relatively recent new dad, he was impressive on why protecting the environment for the next generation was so important for him personally and what he has been doing about it in government.
Norman Lamb had a pre-speech video full of independent endorsements of his work as a Minister on Mental Health issues, including a heart felt tribute from former boxer Frank Bruno. Danny Alexander had his shirt top button undone and his sleeves rolled up ready for the fight.
There is nothing like having a few young rivals sniffing around after your job to inspire a leader to up his game and I expect Nick Clegg will deliver a good and possibly a very good speech with which to send conference delegates back to their constituencies. It won’t be easy. Somehow he has to cut through all the complexities of coalition government and claim some electoral credit for the economic recovery, the pupil premium, the triple lock on state pensions and equal marriage. All the things for which he and his party can be rightly proud. At the same time though, he has to carve out a credible, coherent and inspirational vision to take with him into the next election. He will need some big ideas to put on the polished oak table around which, if there is another hung parliament, the coalition agreement will be negotiated in May of next year.
Steven Gauge is a Senior Consultant at PLMR and an experienced political campaigner. He has spent the last two general elections on the road managing media events in battleground seats for Nick Clegg and Charles Kennedy. In the 2014 local elections Steven was in charge of the Liberal Democrats HQ in a target seat in Southwark, in South London.