Bloodied but unbowed, Clegg's party faithful rally round their leader

Lib Dems gather together in surprisingly good cheer after a wretched first year in government. Matt Chorley reports from Birmingham
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The Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg said yesterday, are like a family. "We have our share of rows, but they are rows for a reason." Yes, they are a family that does not get on. And the patriarch has done the dirty and married into a rival family with whom they don't see eye to eye. There are times when divisions in families are so dramatic, so angry, and so deep, that a permanent schism is inevitable.

A year ago, they were hurtling towards humiliation over the abandonment of their pledge to abolish tuition fees. The star of Cleggmania was confronted with dog mess tumbling through his letterbox. In May this year, their indefatigable local government base took an almighty hammering and dreams of electoral reform were crushed.

Yet one vindication (over Rupert Murdoch) and one victory (over NHS reforms) later, delegates arrived in Birmingham feeling upbeat. The party's president, Tim Farron, will use his conference message to admit to a "particularly distressing" year. But as in all good families, most still rally round the head.

Clegg might be a bit too economically liberal for some, a bit too Cameron in style. He might drop clangers, such as forgetting he was running the country or that his microphone was on. He might even be leading them to electoral wipe-out. But for all his flaws, he is the party's leader and its best hope of stopping the Tories in their tracks.

The emphasis in the conference centre is that the Lib Dems are "in government, on your side". The implication is that the junior partner is looking out for the poor and needy. Time and again speakers on the platform will hammer home that the Lib Dems are delivering tax cuts, not for the rich but for those on low and middle incomes; that pensions are being linked again with earnings and there are a million new apprenticeships.

The message, though, does not yet seem to be getting through to the public. An Independent on Sunday poll suggests that in 2015 the Lib Dems will struggle to match the disappointing showing at the 2010 general election, when the party won only 57 seats, five fewer than in 2005.

Only 47 per cent of people who voted Lib Dem at the last election would do the same next time, while only 20 per cent of all voters think Mr Clegg is turning out to be a good leader of his party, compared with 28 per cent in January. According to the poll, the Lib Dems would hold only 11 seats, with an 11 per cent share of the vote compared with the Tories and Labour, both on 38 per cent.

Of course, this is merely one poll, perhaps years away from the next election. But if the economy fails to improve, Mr Clegg and his MPs will be punished by voters – perhaps more than the Tories – for failing to force David Cameron and George Osborne to change course. This bleak prospect explains why the Lib Dem leader and his ministers have been pushing for their Plan A to boost capital spending projects to stimulate growth.

Writing in the IoS, the former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell warns: "Rising unemployment coupled with rising inflation will test the resolve of the Treasury, which in turn will test the cohesion of the coalition." He adds that government whips may also struggle to control backbenchers who face losing their seats.

The Lib Dems have never been good at doing as they are told, or toeing the line. The more the leadership said it had got a good deal on reworking the NHS reforms, the more those on the left of the party such as Evan Harris and Baroness Shirley Williams demanded extra changes.

But there are signs they are learning. An attempt to reopen the NHS row yesterday was defeated in the conference hall, and there will be no new vote on changes to the plans to abolish primary care trusts and strategic health authorities. Is this a sign the party is changing at its grassroots?

The NHS vote suggests Mr Harris – who lost his Westminster seat in 2010 – and other left-wingers are no longer the force they were. While some complained of the "Tory-isation" of the party, with more and more control held by the leadership, the vote suggests that the grassroots are getting used to the idea of being a serious party of government.

Vince Cable and Chris Huhne may be the "rebels" inside the Cabinet, but even they seem to have learnt the value of only occasionally rocking the coalition boat, and their speeches this week are unlikely to veer far from government policy.

The face of the party is changing, too. Yesterday it unveiled the first 11 candidates selected for the Leadership Programme to make the party "less pale and less male". Eventually, 50 will be fast-tracked on to selection lists in every held or target seat.

During a Q&A session at a former custard factory yesterday, a schoolboy told Clegg he was "really cool". Not everyone in Birmingham agrees, though. Andrew Duff, an MEP in the East of England, is adamant that "nothing is in a better position than a year ago". Lib Dem ministers in particular must share responsibility for the AV referendum which was "fought in the wrong way at the wrong time on the wrong question".

"There is a lot of quite hard thinking being done now by the left of the party and they will want to have their voice heard," said John Pugh, MP for Southport. This should include a change of style. "Outbursts from certain cabinet ministers were clumsy and unhelpful. People have been needlessly terrified of differentiation. We have got to have fewer ministerial kites being flown." He added: "Any observer can see that the current leadership of the party is somewhat to the right of the overall membership of the party."

One very senior Lib Dem goes further, suggesting the traditional left of the party will eventually "go off and do their own thing" though not until 2013, when the scale of the spending cuts becomes too difficult to stomach. For now, the leadership is denying such a difference exists. In his opening rally yesterday, Mr Clegg insisted he was governing "from the centre, for the people, for the whole nation".

But he threw activists some red meat, calling the Tories "political enemies" and boasted that more of the Lib Dem manifesto was being delivered than the one David Cameron stood on. Such claims are not without repercussions.

Yesterday there was a spat over which party was more pro-gay marriage. The Lib Dem minister Lynne Featherstone was supposed to be announcing plans to legislate for same-sex marriages before the next general election. No 10 was quick to brief that the idea was being pushed by the Prime Minister, raising hackles among Lib Dem officials.

Bill Newton Dunn, an MEP in the East Midlands, admits Clegg is "having a tough time". He adds: "People say to me privately it may be hell to be Nick Clegg but he is doing very well in the circumstances." Nick Harvey, a Lib Dem defence minister, is reported in a new book to have said: "The party's never loved Nick, and never will." It's true he has not courted the membership in the same way as Charles Kennedy or even Sir Menzies. But he has delivered them into government, which for most – though not all – is still a cause for celebration.

Relations might be frosty; this week's family gathering may be tense. But don't expect a divorce any time soon.

The ones to watch

Today:

What to look out for: Speech by president Tim Farron, part stand-up routine, part leadership bid.

Calamity for Clegg? A motion on the decriminalisation of drug possession.

Monday:

What to look out for: Business Secretary Vince Cable talks tough on mansion taxes and the banks.

Calamity for Clegg? The leader takes questions from the floor, so expect loose cannons to fire.

Tuesday:

What to look out for: Chris Huhne speech on climate change – but will he acknowledge speeding offence allegations hanging over him?

Calamity for Clegg? Debate on NHS reforms – expect criticism from members over Lib Dem ministers' handling of the shambles.

Wednesday

What to look out for: Leader's main speech where he will claim the party is a powerful force in government.

Calamity for Clegg? The TV cameras will be on his wife, Miriam, who, according to a new book says her husband will serve only one term.

Life in coalition: What do they think of it so far?

Andrew Duff, MEP

"Nothing (and indeed nobody) is in a better position than a year ago. I still believe that the Government's austerity package is too austere and that the abolition of the regional dimension in England is a costly mistake. That said, Mr Clegg's nerve is still holding and the party survives. Things can only get better."

Benjamin Ramm, Editor, The Liberal magazine

"The coalition has appeared to stabilise, but at the cost of liberal principles and policies. The long-awaited referendum on electoral reform was a miserable failure; the NHS is on the brink of privatisation, and beyond the coalition agreement the Government has taken on a decidedly Conservative character. Lib Dems in the Cabinet have failed to persuade Osborne to change course; the consequences of his reckless management will become clear in the coming year."

Sarah Ludford, MEP

"It has not been nice canvassing on doorsteps, but we have got to stick in there. There have not been tantrums among our ministers and not really among the membership. We shouldn't take too much to heart the onslaught of the past year, but nor should we get too carried away by headlines that the Lib Dem tail is wagging the Tory dog."

Paul Tooze, Councillor, Taunton Deane

"I am a great believer that whoever knocks on the most doors will effectively win. I think Nick Clegg is a little bit unfairly pilloried. A lot of local members are not happy, but personally I think he is doing what he has to do. It is good that he is there."

Nick Harvey, Minister of State for the Armed Forces

"We do seem to have bounced back post the fiasco of May very much quicker than I and many others probably expected. Poll ratings, morale, sense of purpose are all in better order. Obviously, there is a long way to go yet, but probably we are facing the least challenging of the three conferences."

Baroness Scott, Lib Dem peer

"It is really difficult for people outside to understand just what a culture change going into government was for many in the party. The Vickers report wouldn't have seen the light of day if the Lib Dems, in particular Vince Cable, weren't pushing it. There is a much more mature understanding about the role that we can play. Can we get everything we want? No, and actually it wouldn't be right. But I am really quite encouraged by where the party is on all this."

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