Andrew Grice: As the Lib Dem conference begins, can Clegg calm the party's jitters?

The Coalition could be the start of a trend caused by the decline of Labour and the Tories, whose combined share of the vote has dropped to 65 per cent
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Indy Politics

As the Liberal Democrat minister started to write a speech for his party's annual conference starting today, he made a list of what is happening in his department and groaned: "It's all bad news."

The Liberal Democrats' heady excitement at their unexpected taste of power is being replaced by the hard graft and decisions of the spending review, and a sober recognition that they have come to office at a very difficult time.

The speechwriter's block which afflicted the minister sums up the problem facing Nick Clegg as he prepares for the Liverpool conference before leaving it early to represent Britain at the global poverty summit in New York.

Until Tuesday, he will be a hands-on Liberal Democrat leader rather than the Deputy Prime Minister. He will make three appearances and will do a lot of flesh-pressing as he appeals to his party to keep a cool head about its falling opinion-poll ratings.

Although the jitters are palpable, the conference may not be the bloodbath hoped for by much of the media. Crunch time will probably come at next year's conference. But genuine worries in the party about the Coalition Government's policies on education, health, welfare, university fees, housing and Trident may well surface this time.

The Deputy Prime Minister is convinced he has a good story to tell. He is sure that he and his ministers enjoy real influence on the Government's policies, saying many are "impeccably liberal" – a phrase we will hear a lot. But he has some convincing to do in his own party.

"We need a change of gear," one Liberal Democrat minister told me. He confessed that he and his fellow ministers had been on a fast learning-curve since May and had been in danger of being overwhelmed by the workload. "We now have to go on a mission to explain the gains; otherwise, all the party and public will see is the cuts," he said.

Indeed, the Whitehall grapevine suggests that a machine designed for majority government needs some fine-tuning. Some government announcements apparently came as a shock to the Liberal Democrats because they were buried in a pile of paperwork their overstretched ministers had not got round to reading.

An impressive study by the Institute for Government think tank this week proposed a beefing up of the Deputy Prime Minister's Office. One senior Whitehall official said: "When Nick Clegg stands in for David Cameron, the Number 10 machine takes over but he doesn't have enough back-up on a day-to-day basis."

When I interviewed Mr Clegg yesterday, I asked him whether he felt swamped. "No, I feel very well supported," he replied. "It was my decision alone to keep my operation pretty slim. I want to avoid baronial empires that pull things apart. My judgement is that it is best if I don't try to create some person-for-person rival operation."

His revealing answer stems from his desire, shared by Mr Cameron, for the Coalition to be a real partnership, not two parties trying to tick their own shopping lists. It explains Mr Clegg's reluctance to trumpet behind-the-scenes victories in stopping the Tories doing what they might have done if alone in power, although his reticence frustrates some Liberal Democrats.

Mr Clegg has not lost the bouncy optimism that made him such an attractive proposition in the leaders' televised debates. Yet some senior Liberal Democrats predict the party's ratings will slip into single figures once the detail of the cuts emerges.

Some describe a "nightmare scenario" in which the Liberal Democrats suffer the political pain of the cuts while the Tories enjoy the gains if and when the country senses light at the end of the tunnel. That has happened to the junior partner in coalitions on the Continent.

We don't yet know whether the British coalition is a one-off or the start of a long-term trend caused by the decline of Labour and the Tories, whose combined share of the vote has dropped from 97 per cent in 1951 to 65 per cent, its lowest since 1918.

Mr Clegg hopes the Coalition will push Britain further down the path of pluralism. Despite silly scare stories from business leaders, right-wing newspapers and the Tories about the instability a hung parliament would bring, the Coalition was a force for stability in the financial markets at a volatile moment and, so far, has looked like a stable government.

That should make the voters less fearful of the scaremongering in future. But there is no certainty they will thank the Liberal Democrats or try to vote for a "balanced Parliament" which they could not guarantee – even if the Alternative Vote is approved in next year's referendum.

Next time, the main choice for many people will be between Prime Minister Cameron seeking a mandate in his own right and a Labour Party under new management, leaving the Liberal Democrats vulnerable to a familiar squeeze.

In his interview, Mr Clegg seemed resigned to losing a section of voters who wrongly thought his party was to the left of Labour. It may be that he is hoping Labour will veer left under the new leader it will choose a week today.

But there is no guarantee that will happen. Meanwhile, the Cameron Conservatives hope to put down deep roots in the centre ground by 2015. So it is not easy to see a clear space for the Liberal Democrats.