Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Luckless Liberals

It might have been better when no-one paid attention to their conferences after all. Apart from David Steel's memorable peroration in 1981 to "Go back to your constituencies....and prepare for government", followed by many years still out of government, few people commented on the deathless stage speeches of Lib Dem politicians. Now, in the full glare of publicity, they're coming under merciless scrutiny. Sarah Teather's humour-defying jokes have already been mentioned, and remain the stuff of Philip Cowley's re-tweeting. The largely anonymous Andrew Stunnell apparently tried a joke at the Guardian's expense which, er, failed. But the big-name fall guy today was Chris Huhne.

Having weathered the tawdry revelations of his driving and related offences, he is now climbing back into the mainstream. His speech today was meant to be clarion call against the evil Tories (a repetitively wearying theme at this conference) but came across somewhat passionlessly. What it did do, however, was provide Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman, in one of his less well-meaning moods, with the ammunition to provide a masterclass in interview harassment. Huhne had carelessly announced, in the anonymous, generalised way of rhetorical flourishes, that "we need no Tea Party tendency in Britain". Well, quite. But cue a series of Paxman questions along the lines of "Who are the Tea Party-ers?", "Name them", "Are they just Bill Cash and some friends?" I was half expecting the indefatigable Paxman to demand the names and addresses of everyone Huhne thought might be a secret Tea Party activist.

Huhne wasn't the only one whose image fared none too well. Party president Tim Farron has been on a bid for the leadership for some time. You can tell this by the way he keeps denying it. But is it just possible that his ever more vigorous denials are also the result of genuine pressure from Lib Dem colleagues to stop putting himself about? The Guardian blog today charted Farron's rapid move from saying that he wouldn't rule out replacing Clegg as leader this morning, to saying he would nail Clegg's feet to the floor to keep him as leader this afternoon. With that level of consistency Farron clearly has a bright future ahead of him (the future is still orange, right?).

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Sarah Teather Jokes Routine

I personally think it was a mistake to allow politicians to wander around the stage during their conference speeches. Keep them behind the lectern and remind them that they are indeed just politicians delivering little listened to speeches of occasional political consequence. Then at least we might avoid the crushing embarrassment of Sarah Teather's jokes routine. To be fair, having seen one joke fail utterly - even the notorious tumbleweed failed to put in an appearance - she carried womanfully on through another two cataclysmically dire two-liners. You really do have to admire the hide of someone who can stand on stage and look as if everything's alright after that.

Just so you can make your own judgement on the latest comedy sensation to hit Birmingham, it's here:

NB - Politics professor Philip Cowley has been so taken with the Teather style of comedy that he's taken to putting a few similar jokes out on twitter himself - such as this one, oh and this one, to say nothing of re-tweeting this one. Fun for all the family.

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.