Donald Macintyre's Lib Dem Conference Sketch: The party’s Likely Lad stakes his claim to be the lad most likely


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Maybe only Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ own Likely Lad, could have got away with it. “This is a Liberal moment,” the party’s outgoing President announced. “Let’s grab it.” This was a little on the wild side, given the Lib Dems’ dismal poll ratings. Naturally, it brought a rapturous conference to its feet.

This is at least a verifiable proposition, or will be next May. Which is more than can be said of his claim that he was in “no doubt” that as the political forefather of post-war Conservatism, Winston Churchill “seeing the Tories trashing his legacy… would once again be a Liberal”. But then the Farron one-liners come thick and fast whether they stand up to post-match scrutiny or not. “Patriots love their country; nationalists hate their neighbours.” Or “Ed Miliband got a load of stick for only remembering half of his speech but that’s still 50 per cent more than the rest of us remembered.”

Boom boom.

No Lib Dem this week has forgotten to include a reference in their speech to the Labour leader forgetting part of his. Unsurprisingly since they are all following an ultra-legible autocue at the back of the hall. But you do wonder when this subject will pass its sell-by date.

Miliband was not the only party leader with reason to flinch. Farron praised Nick Clegg for ending “the shameful detention of innocent children” before immediately saying “that voters are not interested in the past. They are interested in the future.”

Since every Lib Dem minister, from Clegg down, has dwelt interminably on their successes in government, this must have been directed at the lot of them. And as for “the future”, could that just be one in which T. Farron ends up as leader?

But at least Farron excites the faithful as  Environment Secretary Ed Davey, another leadership hopeful, doesn’t, instead addressing them as if they were a group of rather dim children.

“I should at this point make a confession,” declared Davey. “I bunked off the conference on Sunday.” Why, we didn’t wonder. Ah, because he was in Milan chairing a vital EU “green growth” group “which I set up 20 months ago”.

Care minister Norman Lamb, yet another possible candidate, was a bit managerial. But at least he underlined his commitment to mental health with a genuinely moving clip from Frank Bruno.

The day’s shocker was the expletive deployed by Duncan Brack (admittedly quoting a disgruntled activist): “The Lib Dem vote is public sector workers, students and intellectuals. And we have contrived to fuck them all off.” Brack was arguing successfully against Clegg’s attempt to back another airport runway. Which was confusing since he is a bigwig on the manifesto group, and therefore, you might have thought, part of the leadership. Oh well. Only in the Liberal Democrats.