Confused: The Liberal Democrat party disciples who can no longer enjoy the comforts of failure

From national treasure to hate figure of the left, the Deputy Prime Minister must allay colleague's worries this week.
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Indy Politics

Despite the rain, a small but determined band of protesters waved placards of Margaret Thatcher and bellowed "traitor" yesterday at anyone intent on reaching the Liverpool Arena and Convention Centre. A reminder, perhaps, of the impact of the events of the past six months on the Liberal Democrats' annual gathering. Few members bothered to turn out with megaphones and hyperbolic leaflets when they were the perpetual party of opposition. Now they are in government, change is everywhere – and not everyone is comfortable with it.

Security had been stepped up from the casual rummage in the odd handbag by a volunteer to a bank of airport style scanners and X-ray machines. As one party aide noted, this should at least eliminate the ritual photograph of an older delegate knitting on the front row while the leader gives his speech.

Nick Clegg will be pleased that no sharp objects were allowed in the auditorium last night for his first of three appearances in front of the party faithful since he went from the national treasure who inspired "I Agree With Nick" T-shirts to Deputy Prime Minister and hate figure of the left.

He conceded in a speech that entering the coalition had been a "leap into the unknown" and the "nervousness some of us felt about going into government" has not disappeared overnight. "The different impulses that, for many people here, pulled heads one way and hearts another haven't simply vanished. But we've done something bold, exciting and unexpected. And, as a result, things will never be the same for our party again."

That is what many delegates fear. Mr Clegg's remarks to The Independent that the Lib Dems have no future as a party of the left did little to allay worries about being dragged rightwards to appease the Conservatives. Banners in the conference centre proclaim the Lib Dems are "Delivering for Britain" against a very Tory shade of blue.

The rank and file are determined to maintain their distinctiveness from the Conservatives, with whom they traded heavy blows in the general election. Tim Farron, a senior Lib Dem who is standing for election as party president, conceded that he did have something in common with his coalition partners. "Just like some of my Tory colleagues, I joined my party because of Thatcher."

As well as the posters of past Tory prime ministers, more protests are expected. The TUC will stage a rally today at which union barons will accuse the Lib Dems of "ditching the poor, the elderly and the vulnerable, along with their election promises". Many of the special interest groups the Lib Dems have wooed for decades feel aggrieved.

The Liberal Democrat health minister, Paul Burstow, sought to dampen growing unease over coalition reforms to the NHS. But many remain unconvinced.

Cuts to housing benefit and welfare budgets have sparked fears of the worst kind of Tory cuts. The word "sell-out" will echo around the historic docks, and in the conference centre, too, there is unease that the party has not got enough out of making a deal with the devil. Some delegates even dare to use the phrase "wipeout" when contemplating the party's prospects at the next general election; "oblivion", too. They come to Merseyside in the hope that Mr Clegg and his ministers can reassure them that everything will be all right, that this was the right thing to do.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the former leader and mentor to Mr Clegg, warned his protégé that he must use the conference to "explain the necessity of the coalition with the Conservatives, but not forget the old-time religion".

The disciples of the third party, happy or not, have turned up in their droves. Attendance is up 40 per cent, lobbyists and trade bodies have swelled in number. But there is some doubt about what influence these extra delegates can wield. Motions contradicting coalition policy appear at first glance to present trouble. But when pressed on what took precedence, the conference or the coalition agreement, Norman Lamb, an aide to Mr Clegg, made clear that while ministers would take note of what happened in Liverpool, they would not be bound by it if it contradicts the formal document setting out the policy agenda for the coalition's five-year term.

While the DPM's team is keen to avoid anything that could be construed as a split or point of difference from the Conservatives, others are more ready to strike out.

Vince Cable's pre-conference remarks that the immigration cap was "doing great damage" could be seen as an attempt to win back the faithful who fear St Vince has gone over to the dark side. Simon Hughes may believe the Tory opposition to electoral reform is not of the 21st century, but it does not make for easy conversations over the cabinet table. Edward McMillan-Scott, a former Tory MEP who defected to the Lib Dems, paints an uneasy image: "The coalition has found David Cameron's political G-spot. As a politician he is almost content-free, but as a tactician he grabbed the proposition offered by Nick Clegg the morning after the election and turned it into a political lifeline."

As for the Lib Dems, they could do with a lifeline of their own. The opinion polls look bad, down to 15 per cent in the IoS survey today. Long-serving party members trot out the well-worn excuse that their ratings always fall after a general election, ignoring the fact that they used to say it was because they got less publicity. No such luck now.

While national surveys suggest a slump in the party's support, council by-elections – the bedrock of the party's support – have held up. Net gains total more than five since May, including last week's shock result in rock-solid Tory Kensington and Chelsea. This could be linked to recent polls that suggest Mr Clegg is more popular with Conservatives than his own party.

At least he gets to escape on Tuesday morning, leaving Liverpool for New York to represent Britain at the UN aid talks. His ministers are less lucky. Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, hoped to be excused to get back to London for meetings on the spending review. Party managers made clear he had to stay behind, and he will appear on the platform on Wednesday morning to join a Q&A session.

The problem is that many in the audience already know the answers – they just do not like them, and will not be afraid to say so.

The Liberal Democrats in Liverpool: The uncertainties of success

Richard Grayson, former Lib Dem director of policy: "The deal that has been done is not a good one for the party or the country. We signed up to a Tory agenda of cuts we had very specifically opposed."

Philippe Sands, lawyer and author: "In respect of things I'm closely associated with – on human rights and the rule of law – the coalition's record so far is excellent in contrast with what came before."

Don Foster, MP for Bath, heads party policy group on culture, media and sport: "There is a huge danger that the rough decisions damage the party. I think the mood is obviously pleased that we are in government and all that jazz, but it is actually a bit shitty."

Karen Gillard, defeated Lib Dem candidate: "I absolutely disagree with doing the deficit reduction so quickly. I think we'll end up harming the economy. People are scared for their jobs and for their future."

Jeremy Browne, MP for Taunton Deane, FO minister: "The real political prize is to show that we're a national party of government. There is a big leap from being seen as a nice party of opposition to a credible government."

Andrew Duff MEP: "William Hague, in particular, has not dropped his contempt for the EU. There are tensions between pro- and anti-Europeans in the Government already. The worst is still to come."

Malcolm Eady, Councillor, Richmond upon Thames: "You can't make omelettes without breaking eggs. There are bound to be difficult decisions, but this is for five years, not five days, as some seem to think."

Stephen Tall, editor, Liberal Democrat Voice: "Would I rather we had five years in government with the risk that entails, or an endless amount of time in opposition with 60 or 70 seats? I think the former."

Brian Greenslade, county councillor, Devon: "Liberal Democrat support was down by five points or so by this time following the 2001 and 2005 elections, so what we are seeing now is nothing new."

Barry Norman, broadcaster and journalist: "So far, everything has gone fairly smoothly, but there's not much point in the coalition if the junior partner's going to be overridden every time over cuts."

Nick Harvey, Lib Dem armed forces minister: "We've got to wean the membership off expecting the Lib Dem contribution to the coalition to be getting tiny bits of Lib Dem preoccupation pinned on to the body of what the coalition is doing."

Benjamin Ramm, editor The Liberal magazine: "Electorally, the party has been compromised in a way it will possibly never recover from. I actually think in five years the party will probably split in two."

Stephen Gilbert MP: "Not in my wildest dreams did I think the election would end up with the Liberal Democrats in coalition with the Conservatives. There are challenges – but also huge opportunities."

Colin Fry, psychic medium and TV presenter: "I hope Nick Clegg is put on the spot and that he gives some very definite answers as to why he has consented to go along with such drastic cuts being taken so quickly."

Sarah Ludford, Lib Dem peer and MEP: "On the European front, work is proceeding pragmatically and without ideological tantrums, and that makes me much happier than it makes the Eurosceptics. We are in this for the long haul."

John Pugh MP, head of party's health policy group: "We are determined to see through the problems of the deficit. Lib Dems will not be slow in going up to a minister to give them the benefit of their thoughts."

Bill Newton Dunn MEP: "Nick Clegg has been brave, he has taken us into government for the first time since Lloyd George. We have no alternative but to see it through and therefore to back him."

Graham Watson MEP: "With reasonable economic growth, we should be able to make it work. Without it, we are stuffed. I think coalitions will in any case become the norm in UK politics."

John Lloyd, TV producer: "I get irked when the left wing of the Lib Dem party says, 'they shouldn't have worked with the hated Tories'. That seems to be the same old tribal politics."

Baroness Scott, Lib Dem president: "I don't get any sense of rebellion. People are apprehensive about the measures we must take, but very excited about our ability to influence other things."

Lembit Opik, former MP: "The main challenge is making sure we don't disappear off the poll radar. There's a danger that we don't maintain our distinctiveness. The leadership should be careful about that."

Jane Couch, boxer: "If you give someone else a chance, they might do a better job. In power, people change and forget why they wanted to get there in the first place."

Mark Oaten, former MP and front-bench spokesman: "Coalition was the only option, but history shows us that smaller parties struggle to get the credit when it goes well and often get the blame when it goes wrong."

Liz Lynne MEP: "The coalition represents a real chance at last to put many of the Liberal Democrats' policies and principles into practice in government. We need to stick to a positive agenda."

Sandra Gidley, former MP: "The public have no idea what's about to hit them. We had it more or less right going into the election. Now I want to throw something at the TV every time I see Danny Alexander."

John Kampfner, Index on Censorship: "I don't believe the decision to become part of the Government was a wrong one, although it was a difficult one and it still is an uncomfortable one."

Brian Paddick, candidate in 2008 for London Mayor: "The Lib Dems have had a significant impact on the agenda, particularly civil liberties and reducing the size of the state. Some would argue that's unremarkable."

Nicholas Parsons, actor and TV presenter: "The UK's in a desperate economic state and needs a strong government and strong action; it's better to do it with a coalition than to try one single party."

Lisa Appignanesi, campaigner for free expression: "It was good to mark a step away from tribal political warfare. But I'm not convinced the Lib Dems can have the progressive impact their policies promised."

Mike Hancock MP: "The party's mood is a bit different to how Clegg sees it. The people who changed party loyalty to vote for us are pretty pissed off. I think we're going to get punished."

Conference issues that won't go away

Liberal Democrat rules state that motions passed by the annual conference automatically become party policy. Nick Clegg's chief of staff, Norman Lamb, said last week that its ministers would ignore votes that clashed with the coalition deal. Nevertheless, the conference agenda contains proposals that could make it an uncomfortable week for the leadership.

Free schools A motion warns that the coalition's Tory-inspired policy of introducing free schools will "increase social divisiveness and inequity" and waste resources.

Taxation Activists will call for extra levies on the rich – including a "land value" levy.

Gay marriage The Lib Dems will vote on full marriage rights for gay couples, with civil partnerships to be "converted" into full marriage.

Health reforms A motion warns against the "destabilisation" of health services through the use of private-sector providers.

Trident After the Government has denied that the UK's independent nuclear deterrent is under threat, Lib Dem activists will attempt to force a debate on including Trident in the spending review.

Housing Activists in London have responded to comments by David Cameron last month with an emergency motion opposing the removal of secure tenancies for council tenants.

Press freedom Questions over the impartiality of members the Press Complaints Commission threatens to haul the leadership into an unwelcome row with the media.

Human trafficking Lib Dem members will directly question the Government's decision not to opt in to the new draft EU Directive on Human Trafficking.

Aid to China A motion complaining about the £170m the UK gives annually to the world's third largest economy threatens to embroil the Government in a row with an important trading partner.

Pakistan floods An attempt to express sympathy with the victims also contains a sideswipe at citizens and politicians, claiming that "the response of the international community so far has been woefully inadequate".