Lucy Burns takes a closer look at the messages we can take from the fringe at this week’s party conference.
The Lib Dems turned conference lore on its head this week. Typically, poll ratings dictate the mood at the annual gatherings of the party faithful but, as my colleague Geoff Duggan has observed, despite poll ratings stuck around 7%, the Lib Dems were positively upbeat in Glasgow. Their confidence stems from the knowledge that they remain reasonably likely to hold the balance of power in 2015, even if they lose up to 50% of their seats, as some analysts are predicting and Clegg remains a potential kingmaker.
Yet Glasgow also revealed the complexities behind this optimism. Comments on the fringe highlight a paradox: whilst the party’s election campaigning will target the Tories, senior party figures favour a second round of coalition government with the Conservatives, rather than Labour.
The Lib Dems have little choice but to take the fight to the Conservatives in the election. The party is in a battle to retain as many of its existing 56 seats as possible but Labour’s strong showing in Lib Dem target seats means that Clegg’s troops must focus on holding off the Conservatives.
Of course the party will have a choice – if the numbers work out – about which party to govern with after the next election. If Nick Clegg appeared to stick to an ‘equidistant’ strategy with the line ‘borrow less than Labour, cut less than the Conservatives’, the true feelings of the party’s senior figures was hinted at on the fringe. Tim Farron appeared to soften up party members for another round of coalition with the Conservatives, when he argued that an EU referendum would actually be easier to win in a Coalition with the Conservatives because it would instil discipline in the Tory ranks. And Duncan Hames was at pains to point out that the Lib Dems desire to increase capital spending was more politically achievable with George Osborne in the Treasury, than it would be under Ed Balls.
The fringe is sometimes derided as a waste of time and energy for lobby groups and corporates alike but in Glasgow, paying careful attention to smoke signals from Ministers off-stage proved its worth, a point reinforced by James Forsyth’s piece in the Spectator this morning.