Eyes front! The coalition partners focus on the future

Clegg makes no apologies for deal with the Tories, and delegates' grumbles are muted. Political Correspondent Matt Chorley on a most unusual conference
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Indy Politics

Anyone arriving in Liverpool expecting blood on the carpet was going to be disappointed. The Liberal Democrats are far more subtle than that.

Only the most alarmist, or those who understand the third party least well, thought there would be open revolt and angry calls to abandon the coalition with the Conservatives. Senior ministers did well to suggest this had been the widely-held prediction, which was later disproved as delegates lined up to applaud their shiny new ministers.

The message from the top was clear: we are in this for the long haul. Doing a deal with the Tories was the only option. A coalition with Labour did not work mathematically, and the outgoing administration was not up for it, refusing to even entertain Lib Dem demands such as the scrapping of ID cards. And for the party which has long advocated pluralism, walking away from a coalition because it was with the Conservatives and would mean tough decisions on spending would have sent them to the outer reaches of the political wilderness.

Nick Clegg pleaded with his party to "stick with us", an argument all the more compelling because the Lib Dems had no alternative. But accepting this isn't the same as everyone being happy. During their five days on Merseyside, there were repeated calls from all wings and levels of the party to do more to differentiate themselves from their Tory pals and Labour enemies. "Why are we getting the blame for the cuts and the Tories all the credit for the good stuff," was a repeated refrain from the conference floor.

But Mr Clegg is adamant. He will pick no "synthetic fight" with the Tories, though many of his colleagues believe the disputes across the Cabinet table are far from artificial. The Deputy Prime Minister, a fluent German speaker, has been watching closely the coalition machinations in Berlin, where the FDP junior coalition partners saw their poll ratings drop and began attacking what their own administration was doing. He refuses to make the same mistake.

Others are more willing to hint at dissent. Tessa Munt, a new MP, threatened to resign as a whip if Trident is renewed on her watch. Nick Harvey, the highly-rated armed forces minister dubbed "David Cameron's man in the MoD" by some of his Lib Dem colleagues, risked angering his Tory boss Liam Fox with his protestation that a decision on the nuclear deterrent could be shunted beyond 2015.

At the top of government, some ministers go as far as saying that far from distancing themselves, Lib Dems must "own the cuts". The problem is they are cuts which Mr Clegg aggressively opposed in the run-up to the election. Almost a year to the day since arguing there "isn't a serious economist in the world who agrees with the Conservatives" on the need for immediate spending cuts, Mr Clegg argued in Liverpool that "delay won't solve the problems – in fact, it would make them worse".

The honest, if politically dangerous, explanation for this U-turn is that the Lib Dems have less than a fifth of the MPs of their coalition colleagues, and therefore the Conservative economic plan takes precedence.

During his keynote speech Mr Clegg repeatedly invoked the spirit of Margaret Thatcher by seeking to explain the need for cuts in terms of a household budget. "It's the same as a family with earnings of £26,000 a year who are spending £32,000 a year. Even though they're already £40,000 in debt. Imagine if that was you," Mr Clegg said. As if to illustrate the inadequacy of the argument, when he posited the question "would you ask your children to pay your credit card bill?" he received not his hoped for gasps of horror but hoots of laughter from an audience now pondering the logistics of getting the kids to cough up.

Seizing on the crisis which befell Greece during the weekend of Britain's coalition negotiations as the sole reason for the Lib Dem reversal on the timing of the cuts remains unconvincing. The deepening crisis in Ireland, where aggressive cuts have contributed to a second recession, provide a strong counter argument and ammunition to the new Labour leadership. No Lib Dem is addressing or seeking to disprove the argument that continuing investment would lead to higher tax receipts, bringing down debt and avoiding a double dip recession.

However Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary who lost out to Mr Clegg for the party leadership, did suggest at a fringe meeting that the scale of the cuts could change if the economy worsens over the coming years. "Any Chancellor has to take account of the circumstances," he said. It would be like setting sail from Liverpool to Birkenhead when the wind has changed. "The objective will stay the same but you have to make sure you get there."

Meanwhile, Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury and face of the cuts, is repeatedly forced to brandish his Oxford degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics as proof he is up to the job. He claims to be bringing his experience as a political strategist to the role but has struggled to shake off comparison with his short-lived predecessor, David Laws, a one-time City high flier. Mr Alexander even suffered the indignity of his leader resurrecting the comparison to Beaker, the ginger boffin from The Muppets.

But the former press officer to the Cairngorms National Park is one of the leading exponents of the strategy to lay claim to the entire government programme, including eradicating the deficit within a Parliament. If it works, Lib Dems can less easily be squeezed out of taking the credit.

In the bars and restaurants around the conference, Lib Dem ministers admitted they are struggling to be heard above the Conservatives. Swamped by the civil service, and trying to act as Lib Dem eyes and ears across their department, they risk losing their public profile.

Mr Clegg privately admits this has become a problem for all ministers and has warned them to be aware of maintaining their party's presence. He joked last week that he was proud to see Lib Dem ministers at the despatch box, "or, in the case of Sarah Teather, to hear them". Yet Ms Teather, a star in opposition, faces charges of being "almost invisible" since becoming schools minister, and not just because she is 4ft 10in.

Concern is also growing among Lib Dem ranks about their leader. Mr Clegg insists he will not run a mirror operation to Downing Street, and has a small, prudent team of barely a dozen in the Cabinet Office. Unity and a single message from Number 10 is key, he says. But colleagues are less sure. "Nick needs more people around him, he just hasn't admitted it to himself yet," said one Cabinet minister who believes Mr Clegg should have taken charge of a proper department. The Lib Dem leader argues he would have had an even lower profile had he disappeared into a Whitehall ministry.

For now the DPM is happy to take a back seat. Instead of the last government's obsession with headlines, he looks to the ultimate prize in 2015 of electoral vindication for his decision to enter government. "We're not going to repeat all that Labour stuff about marching hoodies to cash machines to get one day's positive coverage in the Daily Mail," said one minister. In another break from the Blair-Brown era, Cabinet government is back, with decisions made at the weekly meetings in Downing Street and Cameron in particular willing to delegate.

The unspoken conundrum is how exactly the Lib Dems might extricate themselves from the coalition in a position to successfully fight the next general election. The long and winding road may have sounded like a sensible political strategy in the city that gave us the Beatles, but it will take the media and the party's supporters some time to get used to.