Lib Dem Conference: Sketch - It's unwise to push Pinocchio too far

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The Independent Online
The small, craggy-featured man in the immaculate white shirt who sat down next to me at breakfast yesterday was ominously newspaperless - and thus in search of a conversation. He found it with the melancholic young man on the other side of the table. Time was, he told the young man in the accents of Lancashire, when the Liberal Democrats would only have held their conferences in Brighton or Blackpool. But as his party became more successful (he continued, uninterrupted), so it varied its venues. It now travelled to Harrogate, Bournemouth - to any place in fact where the Liberals now had representatives. Each in his view (the mournful youth was gazing out of the window) had its own particular strengths and weaknesses, which he happily enumerated in some detail.

Such, then, is the mood in Eastbourne, occasioned by the Lib Dems best election results since Magna Carta. With 46 MPs, they are chippy, confident, they even swagger a little. As a party, they remind one of a nice, ordinary- looking, slightly nerdy male student (computer studies and politics) who has just scored after the rag ball. No matter that the girl was drunk at the time, or on the rebound after a bad relationship with a Hooray Henry, he now feels himself to be in a position to advise others on the arts of love.

And no one is the target of more such advice than that electoral Romeo, Tony Blair. Whenever he is spoken about in public here, it is in pitying or patronising tones. He has - they all agree - no guiding ideology, no strategy, no roots, no great principles, but rather dashes from decision to decision with manic good intention.

This is the image of Blair as a political Pinocchio, a bouncing marionette with a painted smile, full of enthusiasm but seduced by any passing, glittering diversion. If ever Blair is to become - in Lib Dem terms - a real boy, then he will need to be guarded by an external conscience, admonished should he set off arm in arm with the wicked fox of power and the weedling cat of opportunism.

Few qualify better for the role of Jiminy Cricket, sent by Providence to guide the puppet's steps, than the soft- spoken Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrat president. Lacking only an old top hat and a furled umbrella, Jiminy Maclennan hopped up to the rostrum and warned Pinocchio of the dangers of inconstancy and lack of attention to detail. "The swan gliding over the water looks lovely," he chirruped sagely, "but someone has to do the feet". How amusing. How true.

It was a beautiful speech which elegantly reminded his listeners in the hall that they were hugely superior in wisdom and morality to everyone else on the planet, and that their one possible fault was excessive modesty. Everything that was good about New Labour had first been Liberal Democrat, the only problem being that Labour could never catch up, because, being very radical, the Lib Dems were always changing.

But what happens, I wonder, if Pinocchio gets a bit fed up with all this Polonian counsel, and tells Jiminy Cricket to take a running jump? Or, to put it another way, does not the role of effective conscience demand a certain circumspection, a level of friendly discretion?

That is not their way, alas. Back at the breakfast table, Mr Craggy was still going strong. "Eventually I'd like to see us go to Aberdeen," he was telling his over-polite, despairing young neighbour as I got up to go. Sometimes, so would I.