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Monday, September 20, 2010 

The Liberal Democrats and the anxiety of power.

It's become traditional when the party conferences come round yet again to take a look back and see what nonsense I wrote about them twelve months ago. This time last year the Liberal Democrats seemed to be, as usual, treading water. Nick Clegg, that eternal hopeless optimist, thought that this might be the long-awaited liberal moment even while everyone around him yawned. And I, in full Mystic Mogg mode, said that the Liberal Democrats deserved a chance even as the spectre of a hung parliament faded. In fairness to myself, the Conservatives were 17 points ahead of Labour at the time in the opinion polls.

Nevertheless, ahem. True, Clegg was wrong: it wasn't a liberal moment. Nor however was it a truly Conservative moment, as the election results attested. Far more controversial is whether we can still agree if the Liberal Democrats deserved that chance, now knowing just what sort of agreement would be reached with the Conservatives for the two parties to go into coalition. The problem is that so many, having voted for a party which promised not to cut until the recovery was secured, now find themselves have helped into power a party which turned that policy on its head as soon as it was offered the slightest trappings of government.

The party is more than just aware of that bargain as it gathers together in power for the first time in over 65 years; it actively pervades it. While the Conservative party conference will probably not be quite as triumphant as it would have been had Cameron won power outright, you expect that it'll be far more pleased with itself than the Liberals are in Liverpool. You'd also imagine that the atmosphere would be completely different if the result had been slightly different and Labour had still held the upper hand, presuming that Labour in power would have stayed with its previously articulated deficit reduction plan. As it is, there's both a sense of anti-climax and trepidation, with the delegates fearing the future, leaving the new government ministers having to face the tricky task of both recognising the anxiety many feel at having to take responsibility for the coming cuts, while also urging them to celebrate, or if not, at least be thankful for having gained office under first past the post, achieving so much in the process.

If the discomfort of sharing power with the Conservatives is already apparent amongst the rank and file, it doesn't show in the top ranks, or at least not amongst those most associated with the Orange Book. While Vince Cable mutters out loud about the effect the immigration cap is already having, Nick Clegg is going so far in his speech as to accentuate the positive effects working together is having and go to have: when he says "we have become more than the sum of our parts" you imagine a slightly over-the-top couple describing their close relationship, not two parties which away from civil liberties had many policies which were almost complete polar opposites. As unconvincing as his line is that "two parties acting together can be braver, fairer and bolder than one party acting alone", alluding to how two heads are usually better than one, which doesn't really work when parties almost always contain a multitude of differing views, he's right that it would have been seen as a rejection of the pluralistic politics the party has always identified with if they had let the Conservatives attempt to govern as a minority.

This was though fundamentally a speech directed at the party's supporters, not at those who voted Liberal Democrat and already regret it, nor really at a country which is equally worried about how savage the cuts are going to be, as Clegg himself suggested last year, even with the much increased media attention upon the event. Try as he did to play down just how sharp the slashes in spending would be as he appealed to public sector workers, claiming that the cuts would only reduce spending back to a 2006 level, it was mostly an exercise in semantics: the cuts might not take us back either to the 80s or the 30s, but such massive cuts in spending are the biggest since those eras, if not even larger in practice. He may have promised those in the north and in Scotland that the cuts will not have the same effect as they did then, and that the cuts are not ideological, yet there's nothing to suggest the private sector can currently pick up the slack from the public economy in those areas, while certain Conservatives, including those in senior government roles, actively do consider the cuts to be part of a political program aimed at shrinking the state rather than just eradicating the deficit.

Perhaps, as so often when it comes to conference speeches, what's just as instructive is deemed either unmentionable or forgotten about. Hence there's no mention of how the Institute for Fiscal Studies declared the first joint Conservative-Liberal Democrat budget to be regressive despite it being lauded otherwise by both parties, with Vince Cable deeming it one they could be proud of, nor was there any defence of its progressive intentions. Trident was left well alone, as was the previously toxic issue of abolishing or reforming tuition fees, left for Lord Browne's review to sort out.

It would certainly be churlish to describe the speech overall as anything other than well-constructed, in areas cogently argued and making the best of a difficult case to an unconvinced and concerned party. The best praise it can possibly be given is that it kept the devices so often used by politicians to a minimum: he only falls down completely when he bothers to inform us that he "believes in work". It may well be however his vision of a strong, fair, free and hopeful nation come 2015 which comes back to haunt him: if the cuts tip the economy into a double-dip recession then the imagined achievements the activists will be able to boast about come that year will be more than just overshadowed; they could well condemn his party to another 65 years in the wilderness.

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