Lib Dem Conference: Paddy's gentle insults are a farewell flattery for the faithful

The Sketch
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SMALL PARTIES breed durable affections. It's hard to think that someone could stand up at the conference for any other party and touch every heart with a reference to a colleague dead for over 10 years. But Alan Beith, introducing Paddy Ashdown's farewell speech and regretting the absence of David Penhaligon, did just that - drawing a burst of wistful applause perfectly calculated to loosen up the organs of nostalgia.

Not all his remarks were as well-judged. "I've worked with four leaders," he said as he worked up his encomium, and then realised his statistics weren't quite up too date; "No, no - five," he added, "if you count the last few weeks." Charles Kennedy, who presumably takes the view that we should, looked sideways at him with an expression sharp enough to allow delegates to unstifle their giggles.

The sense of family loyalties pretty much guaranteed that there would be a big turnout for Paddy's last fling. Having scanned the speech in advance, most conference meteorologists had been predicting heavy precipitation from delegates, particularly during the closing passages, in which Mr Ashdown said goodbye with a bit of immemorial Irish blarney. In the event, though, there were only scattered showers in the hall - an understandable downpour from Mr Ashdown's wife being balanced by the lightest drizzle elsewhere.

This was partly because Mr Ashdown underplayed the weepy bit, perhaps nervous that his own emotions might overflow. But it was also because he had induced a mild daze of anaesthesia with his main theme - a heartfelt exhortation that the party should shun complacency and embrace "mutualism". Nobody seemed entirely sure in which direction they were being asked to charge - and Mr Ashdown advanced further into the mists when, in the tones of one daringly thinking the unthinkable, he suggested that "equality of access" might replace "equality of opportunity" as the ultimate political goal. It was Thesaurus politics and it left the hall, if not cold, then tepid at best. He touched his colleagues far more directly when he affectionately chided them for their recalcitrance - "you have been uncompromising at times," he told them ruefully, "uncomfortable" and "stubborn". The hall gave an amused purr of satisfaction. This was just how they liked to have their fur ruffled.

And if Mr Ashdown didn't know quite when to stop - the phrase "unbelievably curmudgeonly" clearly struck most people as a bit too much of a good thing - he did grasp that gentle insults were the kind of flattery they liked best, it being the most cherished belief of Liberal Democrat delegates that they are mavericks, unbluntable thorns in the Establishment's side. These are relative terms, of course. Only that morning conference had treated itself to a thoroughly enjoyable insurrection over a motion attacking student tuition fees. The party managers wanted this watered down and the MP Phil Willis had obligingly tabled an amendment to this end. Realising that the amendment would probably fail, they opted to refer the motion back instead, a way of shanking the ball into the procedural rough.

Conference decided they didn't want to do this, but they didn't get what they wanted without a fight, since the session chairman succumbed to a sudden attack of Politburo myopia as he assessed the show of hands on the matter. As he called on Mr Willis to advance his case, outraged delegates shouted for a proper count, rising from their seats one by one. Nobody was very surprised when they won the vote 269 to 220, since even Stevie Wonder could have judged this one by eye. Advancing in triumph to the podium, one of the proposers then reassured any revolutionaries who might be getting cold feet; the motion had been drafted, he explained, to be "as innocuous as possible".

As Karl Marx once said of the Germans, these are people who wouldn't storm a railway station unless they'd bought a platform ticket first.