It's party conference time, and leaders all need to convince the rank and file

Inside Westminister: How does Mr Clegg ensure his party gets a share of the credit for the recovery?

Ed Miliband’s relations with both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have become strained since the Commons voted against UK military action in Syria. The Prime Minister and his deputy, who strongly backed British involvement, remain bemused by the Labour leader’s apparent change of heart, blaming him for the Government’s surprise defeat on intervention. “We’ll never trust him again,” one Cameron ally snarled. Mr Clegg has to keep lines open to Labour in case there is another hung parliament in 2015, but is being pretty rude about its lack of policy.

Yet if the three leaders were locked in a room, and told the truth, they would agree on one thing: they all face problems with both the electorate and their own parties as they enter the annual party conference season, which starts when the Liberal Democrats gather in Glasgow on Saturday. The voters may not tune in for a while, but these conferences mark a new phase in which the parties turn their sights to the general election in May 2015.

Mr Clegg believes the Lib Dems have already made their big strategic choice when they arrived at what he called their “fork in the road”. He thinks they decided to be a grown-up party of government rather than return to the “comfort zone” of opposition. The Glasgow conference will tell us whether he is right. He could face some tricky votes on the economy, tuition fees and the Trident nuclear deterrent – issues where his own views do not chime with those of many Lib Dem activists.

The Lib Dem leader wants his party to focus on how to remain in the game of government after the next election, acting as a brake on the excesses of a Conservative-only administration that cannot be trusted to build a “fairer society”  or a Labour one not trusted to ensure a “stronger economy.” The Lib Dems’ pitch is that only they can provide both.

But as growth returns to the economy, Mr Clegg faces another crucial challenge: how does he ensure his party gets a share of the credit for the recovery? Experience of coalitions in other countries suggests the biggest party hoovers up any credit for good news. The Lib Dems’ unique selling point sounds good, and although people can’t “vote coalition”, another hung parliament is a real possibility.

The Independent’s latest poll of polls puts Labour on 37 per cent, the Tories on 32 per cent, and the Lib Dems and Ukip both on 11 per cent. Although such figures point to a Labour majority of 50, the party’s lead is fragile and has halved this year. John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University who compiled the weighted average of the polls, said Labour’s decline was not a “temporary blip”, as the party was having its worst run in the polls since the autumn of 2010.

Mr Miliband’s personal ratings are also on the slide. Professor Curtice points out that only one post-war opposition leader has endured such levels of unpopularity and gone on to win the keys to Downing Street – Edward Heath in 1970.

In a week’s time, Labour will gather in Brighton for what is being billed as a make-or-break conference for Mr Miliband – just like last year’s. Then, he saw off his critics with an inspired speech – without notes – in which he rebranded his party as One Nation Labour. Since then he has struggled to put flesh on the bones. He has another opportunity to do so at the conference. It is surely time for some more policy meat, not least to prevent Labour’s week being dominated by Mr Miliband’s battle with the trade unions over how they fund the party, which would be a turn-off for many voters.

The other challenge for Labour is to strike the right tone on the economy, now that growth has returned. It’s a difficult balancing act. Labour can’t admit it was wrong to say the Coalition cut “too far, too fast”, and insists that growth would have returned sooner without such deep cuts. But it cannot appear in denial or churlish about the recovery. Relying on the “living standards crisis” is not enough, since George Osborne has the power to announce some headline-grabbing measures to alleviate it before 2015. This process could even start at the Tory conference in Manchester.

The better economic news should have ensured a relatively easy ride for Mr Cameron when the Tories meet. But the gulf between him and his backbenchers was illustrated when 60 refused to support him on Syria. He also has work to do with the voters. Although Labour’s poll lead has shrunk, Professor Curtice said there has been “no substantial recovery in the Conservatives’ position” – partly because Ukip is still snapping at its heels.

 The next three weeks may not decide the next election but they will shape the battleground. Mr Osborne said this week that the economy was “turning a corner.” Politics is too. The long campaign for the 2015 election starts now.

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