Conference Diary: Clarke's plain speaking ruffles Lib Dem feathers

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Indy Politics

Kenneth Clarke used the conference platform yesterday to rally Conservatives behind the No campaign for the 5 May referendum on adopting the alternative vote (AV) system at general elections.

Safer, Tory party managers judged, than allowing him to speak about his sentencing policy. Yet the plain-speaking Mr Clarke still managed to ruffle feathers. He dismissed supporters of electoral reform as usually coming from the "fringes of politics". That will not endear him to the Liberal Democrat ministers with whom he often agrees around the Cabinet table. Declaring the Tories deserved to lose the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections, Mr Clarke said: "I really cannot recall ... a general election where I think the great British public got it wrong ." Only one problem: David Cameron's failure to win an overall majority last year. If there is one thing that the Cameroons don't like to be reminded of, it is that. Oops.

On the wrong side

Ministers declared their support for "freedom of expression" in Libya, but it seems to be in doubt closer to home. Conservative Yes, a band of Tory activists who support AV, was barred from launching its campaign at the conference. In contrast, the No to AV campaign was allowed its own stall and its propaganda was distributed by Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ). Conservative Yes claims support from former MPs and candidates, Tory peers, councillors and assembly members. Although some Tory MPs sympathise, none has been persuaded to risk Mr Cameron's wrath by coming out in favour of reform, which might blight their career prospects.

Naughty list

Some ministers decided to stay away from the Cardiff conference. Warning to the absentees: Tory whips are said to be checking the register to discover the naughty boys.

Cable's mission

Spotted in the same hotel as Tory representatives: Vince Cable, the Business Secretary. He is regarded as a dangerous leftie by many Tories. But Mr Cable was not there to build bridges. He addressed the Lib Dem Welsh conference and stayed on for meetings with local business leaders. Business as usual, alas.

Don't mention...

Baroness Warsi, the Tory co-chairman, avoided any mention in her speech of the party's embarrassing third place in the Barnsley Central by-election – discussion was relegated to a behind-closed-doors session. Some activists grumbled privately the Liberal Democrats have blunted the Government's message on Europe, allowing the Ukip to come second in Barnsley. If Ukip does well in the May elections, Tory Eurosceptics will be on the march, Mr Cameron is being warned.