Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Lib Dem Dilemma - Opposition or Government?

There was a time when we could safely ignore the Lib Dem conference and not really return to the world of active politics until Labour gathered the brothers and sisters by the sea. There can be no greater sign of the radical change wrought by the 2010 election than the fact that, actually, we have to listen to the Lib Dems. And that they have armed police at their conference too.

They've had a torrid year electorally and reputationally, which makes their Birmingham gathering all the more impressive for being actually quite buoyant by all accounts. Nick Clegg's made one speech, which also had a moderately good joke (the one about Ken Clarke being the sixth Lib Dem cabinet member - probably sounds better when you're at a Lib Dem conference than on the page). He wasn't mauled, and he was able to claim that Lib Dems were 'punching above their weight'. He gets to make another would-be show-stopper on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Lib Dem conference go-ers, for the second time, get to hear speakers who have titles like "Minister for....". Since at least part of the role of political activism is about seeking power, it must all be pretty intoxicating still.

I like the Coalition. I like the fact that it gives a bit more heft to the probably centrist, One Nation instincts of the prime minister and some of his inner circle. I also understand the Lib Dem need to mark out a rather different stall to that of their coalition partners. They were hardly going to go into this conference espousing the need to remain loyal allies of a party that many of their members cordially loathe. They need distance. A bit of orange coloured water. There will, after all, be no shortage of Tories in a couple of weeks time wanting to slam the lily-livered Liberals for slowing down the necessary train of radical right reform.

It shouldn't, therefore, bother the Tories that the Lib Dems are seeking to move antagonistically out of their shadow (and to be fair, more right-wing Tories will be delighted that their enemy shows itself more clearly). The coalition will still prevail, if not in the soupy, friendly spirit that begat it. But the issue for the Lib Dems to consider over the next fifth of their great experiment in government is how far they speak like members of government, and how far they use they use the rhetoric of opposition. Are they, in effect, in Danny Alexander's, or Tim Farron's image? Their eventual answer will clearly determine their election success in 2015.

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