Lib Dems gear up for their biggest ever conference

The Liberal Democrats are preparing for the biggest conference in their history following their decision to form a coalition with the Conservatives.

The party's annual gathering was traditionally regarded as a curtain-raiser for the Labour and Tory conferences. It was always more relaxed and less heavily policed than its rivals – and noticeably more sparsely attended.

All that has changed this year as the Liberal Democrats enjoy their first taste of power for 65 years, with Nick Clegg and three party colleagues filling seats in the Cabinet. One thousand extra pass applications are being processed for next month's conference in Liverpool. Security controls are being tightened and hotels in the city have experienced a rush in bookings.

More than 7,000 delegates, members of the media and commercial attendees are expected to travel to the conference, compared with its usual attendance of about 6,000. The number of journalists attending is likely to leap from 1,000 last year to more than 1,500.

The number of organisations, including firms, unions and charities, taking stands in the conference exhibition hall is increasing from 67 in 2009 to 90 this year. Record numbers of fringe meetings are also being organised.

However, the growing interest has alarmed some conference organisers who fear that disquiet among delegates over coalition policies – notably deep spending cuts – will be laid bare.

A motion condemning the creation of "free schools" will be debated, while dissent over housing, the reorganisation of the health service and nuclear power is also likely to boil over.

Party figures will strive to demonstrate the influence they are having on the coalition which Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has described as "a business, not a marriage". Liberal Democrat members of government will be authorised to make announcements in their policy portfolio.

One senior Liberal Democrat said: "If people want to go looking for splits with the Tories, they will be able to find them. But we have to be relaxed about that and not obsess about it – it is the price of the position we are in."

In a further demonstration of the party's rise to power, Mr Clegg's end-of-conference speech has been brought forward by two days to enable him to deputise for David Cameron at a meeting of the United Nations in New York. However, this creates a potential problem for party managers. One said: "There is always the risk that while the cat is away the mice will play."

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said: "This year's conference will be by far the biggest in the party's history. It's very exciting and a sign the Liberal Democrats have come of age."

Last year's Conservative conference was attended by 12,500, with 13,500 passes expected to be issued for this year's gathering in Birmingham. More than 10,000 delegates and visitors attended the 2009 Labour conference in Brighton.

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