It’s only Monday, sure, but the Liberal Democrats so far seem to be doing a very good job at defying the commentariat’s predictions of fights and blood-letting, and instead are behaving remarkably well for a party supposedly on the verge of political annihilation. In what was billed as the most awkward conference setting since Blair was slow hand-clapped at the WI, the Lib Dem’s leaders have managed to strike an almost perfect balance between playing to the heartlands (Cable’s mansion tax, Clegg’s “punching above our weight”, and Teather’s dreadful jokes at the expense of Osborne), whilst making some quite sensible and authoritative comments about the awesome responsibility of Government at a time of such economic woe – indeed Cable’s “wartime” language on the economy earlier today could even land rather well in the Tory heartlands. It’s hard to imagine the ever-rebellious Conservative Party acting in the same way if their leader was under such pressure from the press and failing so miserably in the opinion polls.
Clegg’s opening speech on Saturday seemed to stop any potential detractors before they could even get started, but I’m also sensing a bit of a concerted effort by fellow senior Lib Dem Ministers to keep their criticisms of Tory policy to the conference hall and fringe events, whilst keeping as close to the Coalition Government’s ‘party line’ on the airwaves, arguing that any party divisions are natural, understandable and not a big secret or surprise. In Coalition Government, this is of course as it should be, but it’s a fine balance in communications terms, which so far they seem to have mastered. There’s still two full days to go, though, with Chris Huhne in the media’s sights on Tuesday – and we all know how much the media likes to test just how strong his affiliation with the Coalition Government actually is.
And let’s not get carried away thinking that this ‘party vs coalition responsibility’ dilemma is reserved for the Liberal Democrats: we should expect much the same in two weeks in Manchester, with senior Conservative Ministers gently ribbing their coalition partners in the conference hall, letting rip in private fringe events, but maintaining a good degree of loyalty to the cause in public. One big problem for Cameron, though, will be the fallout from that gloating by Clegg that his party is punching well above its weight. This is sure to have poured yet more fuel on the flames of an already smouldering Tory backbench and grassroot revolt and somehow Cameron will have to prove Clegg wrong or he could have his very own WI moment.