Liberal Democrat Conference: The Sketch - Scarlet vision steps lightly into view

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The Independent Online
QUEEN DIANA yesterday ascended to the throne of Liberal Democracy at the Brighton Conference Centre. Once a commoner, the former Christchurch by-election victor, Diana Maddock, was ennobled as the Baroness Maddock last year. She has since been elected president of the Liberal Democrats and was crowned - I mean inaugurated - in a ceremony described by her predecessor, Robert Maclennan, as "pregnant with symbolism".

During Mr Maclennan's eulogy extolling her many virtues she was nowhere to be seen, but as he proclaimed her name she appeared from behind the platform screen. If this had been a Tory conference production during the Thatcher reign, Diana would have arrived to a trumpet fanfare with flowers strewn in her path. The audience would have stood, before falling to its knees swearing oaths of allegiance and party loyalty.

Instead no music, no fanfares, no sweeping in: just a couple of steps on to the rostrum. Looking less than regal, the new president nevertheless cut a striking figure in a scarlet, knee-length dress and jacket. For her sceptre there was a gavel and for her orb there was a copy of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

In her acceptance speech to the nation's Liberal Democrats she reminded her people that they now represented Britain from John o' Groats to Land's End. She also talked about the "Furthest most reaches of our isle" in much the same way as monarchs use the royal "we". It was a good start to her promising two-year reign.

She gave her blessing to her prime minister-in-waiting, Paddy Ashdown, and paid tribute to his 10-year tenure as leader. She even called for 10 more years, but the polite applause at this suggestion was less than rapturous. Lady Maddock is more mumsy and her soothing balm will be her chief asset in trying to control the excesses of her sometimes awkward and divided people.

Indeed the party mob staged a peasants' revolt against its rulers, earlier in the day, when the conference debated education. The party's spokesman, Don Foster, had come up with a policy proposal to replace education authorities with "neighbourhood schools trusts", which was supposed to vest "power in the people".

Sadly, the leadership had forgotten that education is the heartbeat of delegates. If they are not councillors they are invariably headmasters, teachers or education officers. Many have a vested interest in backing the National Union of Teachers against the likes of Chris Woodhead, who faced angry delegates at a packed fringe meeting the night before.

Now that the party has 46 MPs there are backbenchers as well as party spokesmen. So we had Jackie Ballard, the fierce and feisty MP for Taunton, speaking trenchantly against her own hierarchy. Mr Foster and Mr Ashdown, sitting glumly on the platform, both found it difficult to react. Shakes of their heads and the withholding of applause indicated that they were less than pleased.

Well, at least it shows that the party spin doctors are working their seductive magic as they spread their message that "one more heave and we really can make it".

Anyway, the leadership didn't make it yesterday and the peasants won the vote on a show of hands. A good day for party democracy if not for Liberal Democracy.

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