This was, without doubt, the most low key conference we have ever witnessed, even more so than the Tories in 97/98: empty stands, no street hoardings or posters hanging from lampposts, only one visible protest (by the bee-keeping society!), half-empty bars and Ministers sitting alone in cafes with their blackberries. Despite the bee-keepers’ efforts there was quite simply no “buzz” – either around policy announcements or plain old juicy gossip.
In the first year of coalition the conference delegates had an almost tight-chested hesitation about their role in government – the body language was highly defensive, folded arms and hands on heads. Year two saw a more assertive, confident Lib Dem leadership starting to grapple with economic issues, through Danny Alexander’s role at the Treasury, but also pushing out messaging broadly in tune with their Conservative stable mates.
This year, the tricky third year, was wholly different. Much is being made of Lib Dem MPs artificially inflating arguments with the Conservatives, but from what I could see the frustration and disappointment crosses all political boundaries. There is clear hatred of Ed Balls and much of the Labour movement for their “authoritarian” approach to governing, and even arch left liberals like Tim Farron say that, in some respects the liberal approach sits better with the Conservatives than with Labour. Asked whether he texted Labour’s front bench he confided that he did not have a single Labour frontbenchers’ contact details in his iPhone. Poor Tim!
Farron’s other quality line was “The Tories owe us one”. That debt can only be repaid, in his eyes, with a fundamental shift of economic policy to a (more) Keynesian model. Stimulus and spending. The Conservatives aren’t going to like that much.
Michael Gove came in for particular criticism from all corners of the party. Described as an “a priori” politician, dogmatic, cold, one MP went off on one with the choice line: “I don’t like being on the same planet as him”. Education policy will almost certainly be a dividing line at the election.
For those of us on pitches it is worth knowing that Vince Cable loves a multinational, particularly if they can talk a good game about British R&D. Siting your R&D offer in the UK will give you major plus points with HM Government. Incidentally the “green shoots” comments of the Governor of the Bank of England were not repeated, but there was certainly a prompt from Vince to look to manufacturing as a guide on the recovery. He said that people shouldn’t just use the state of the high street as a gauge – good things were happening in the manufacturing sector, and there was a real requirement for engineers. In a telling comment he said that “the political elite has no idea about making things”.
Danny Alexander took up the baton on tax throughout the week with a particular early focus on tax avoidance. “If everyone paid what they should pay you could cut taxes” was his line before announcing a beefed up tax inspectorate and the pledge to investigate the tax affairs of people earning over £1m. Our take from this was that Osborne’s relationship with Alexander is only lukewarm and that Alexander more than anyone has to stay flexible to keep the show on the road. He is clear that the Lib Dems’ top down tax focus is a battle he thinks he can win – offsetting the Tory focus on benefits as a way of clawing back public spending. So if the Tories want £10bn off the benefit cheque, the LDs will feel vindicated with £5bn and a top up from tax avoiders. The big prize is the mansion tax – and the battle will continue on this at the Conservative conference.