Liberal Democrat Conference: The Sketch - Boy with the cheek of a young Hague

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The Independent Online
I HAVE seen the future. It is a chubby-cheeked 14-year-old called Simon Eddy, a Liberal Democrat delegate from Truro & St Austell, and if there is a Liberal Democrat government during the decades ahead he will be its first prime minister.

He stood at the conference rostrum in white jeans and blue shirt and looked like a twentysomething student destined shortly to be a Commons researcher. Only when he criticised the Government for not extending the minimum wage to young people did he reveal his age.

Hacks, including myself, raced behind the new superstar anxious for exclusive interviews. We tripped over each other in the scrum with cameramen and lights trailing in our wake. He could only spare me a few moments as he had many further interviews.

"My paper will need a photo," I told him. "Contact me on my pager," he barked. Comparisons with William Hague came to mind as I wondered what would happen to his mop of thick brown hair in 20 years time. I mumbled something obsequious to him about his apparent confidence and self-assurance. "My mum has the mouth; my dad has the brains; but I'm told I've got both," he riposted.

Simon brought the conference to life as the shadow of rival coverage from the Clinton videos was lifted. A day of enthusiastic debates on candidate selection and the economy provided opportunities for lively performances from such as Malcolm Bruce, the party's Treasury spokesman and, yes, even from the outgoing party president, Robert Maclennan, during his valedictory address.

Delegates gasped as Mr Bruce was introduced as "the most unpopular member of our party..." and even the man in question appeared momentarily thrown. I had always thought of him as a decent friendly chap, and although I had been warned that the conference has a healthy disrespect for its big cheeses, this appeared to be going a bit far. Fortunately the chairman completed the sentence " far as the Labour Party is concerned and entirely to his credit".

A relieved Mr Bruce smiled and quickly got into his stride throwing large hunks of Labour-bashing into his speech. Delegates gorged on this, reminding their leader, Paddy Ashdown, that too much cosying up to Labour is not to their taste.

Mr Bruce worked his audience well and drove them fast. So fast, in fact, that we were heading at rocket speed for outer space. He talked about Liberal Democrats unveiling their "docking procedures" for getting Britain successfully into the single currency, and then accused the Chancellor of five "Murdocking procedures - deliberation, cogitation, exhortation, equivocation and ultimately obfuscation".

Mr Maclennan, meanwhile, must have been taking lessons in public speaking from young Simon. Not normally given to conference oratory he took us by surprise with an elegant speech which brought his four-year presidency to an end. A self-deprecating line at the beginning of the speech won the delegates over to his side.

As he got into his stride, he even felt confident enough to throw in one or two timid jokes. But Liberal Democrats owe him a great debt of gratitude because of the negotiations he successfully concluded with Robin Cook which led to the terms of reference by which the Jenkins Commission on proportional representation must abide. If they achieve their dream of electoral reform, Mr Maclennan will go down in history as one of the principal architects.

There was a slight tremble in his voice as he came to his peroration. He spoke grandly of Liberal Democracy being "the creed of the new millennium ... creeping up the estuaries of the world and filling the stagnant pools with certainty of an incoming, cleansing tide".

In any other circumstances such flowery language would have been dismissed as classic Liberal Democrat pomposity, but Mr Maclennan was entitled to his moment of glory and the conference loved it.

He sat down, overcome, to rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Even I wanted to ovate - the Conservative conference instinct not yet out of my system.

In years to come, when Simon attends his first Liberal Democrat conference as the newly victorious prime minister, Mr Maclennan will be wheeled on to be hailed by the faithful for making the dream come true.