The bluffer's guide to the Lib Dem conference
Jane Merrick cuts through the spin to deliver her verdict on the party's performance in Bournemouth
Sunday 27 September 2009
Spurning Tory affections
He was 100 or so miles away in Westminster, but David Cameron made overtures to the Lib Dems' gathering by the seaside in Bournemouth. Over breakfast last Sunday, perhaps Lib Dem hearts skipped a beat with the news of the Tory leader's affections. He claimed there was "barely a cigarette paper" between him and Mr Clegg on touchstone Lib Dem issues such as the environment and civil liberties. On Monday Eric Pickles, the Renato of the Tory party, asked Lib Dem voters to save their love for a "progressive alliance" with Conservatives.
Savaged by his party
If only Lib Dem MPs were as amorous as the Tory chairman and Mr Cameron. Mr Clegg's declaration that "savage cuts" were needed for public spending triggered scorn among his MPs. They didn't like his warning that the long-standing pledge to scrap tuition fees was being put on hold. Charles Kennedy said the policy was a "defining feature of a Liberal Democrat society". Because of the state of the economy, policies were being downgraded to mere "aspirations". By last Sunday night, just one day into his five-day conference, Mr Clegg surely had an aspiration to go home.
The rebellious mood did not stop there. Vince Cable, variously labelled the party's saint, sage and soothsayer, suddenly had to deny he was Stalin after he failed to tell fellow frontbenchers about his plans for a "mansion tax" on homes worth more than £1m. Mr Cable found he could not walk on water in an angry showdown with MPs on Tuesday morning. They told him his plans were "codswallop" and "suicidal". Pensions spokesman Steve Webb then embarrassed Mr Cable on stage by saying if Martin Luther King had been a Lib Dem he would have said: "I have a nightmare."
Life's a beach
As the honourable members of Britain's third party fought it out in the conference hotel, outside, at the bottom of the cliff, a young northern bottlenose whale was found dead. It was either a metaphor or an omen; no one could quite decide which, so it was named Gilbert. But it seemed to send a message to Mr Cable that even revered and majestic creatures can end all washed up. Later that day, he agreed to be more consensual. The autumn sunshine also brought happier scenes to the Bournemouth beach: Mr Clegg and his aides playing a game of cricket for the cameras, and Miriam, his wife, taking a morning jog free from photographers and press officers.
Miriam's song at the sea
If you had such a glamorous surname as Gonzalez Durantez, and you married someone named Clegg, well... what would you do? Miriam can be forgiven for keeping her maiden name. Despite this, Mr Clegg and his wife were a picture of happiness as they shared an espresso on the seafront for the benefit of the cameras. Miriam even carried off what appeared to be a pair of dungarees, but are probably the height of fashion. During her husband's speech on Wednesday, we learnt it was their ninth wedding anniversary. Miriam also thinks her husband is nothing like Brad Pitt, the Lib Dem leader told us. And after the speech, as she joined Mr Clegg for a walkabout in the audience, she showed insouciance by pulling up a slipping bra strap. For this, but perhaps in the absence of other contenders, she was the star of the conference.
Vote yellow – go turquoise
The moment was historic, but was barely noticed by commentators. Which is perhaps what the party wanted. Before Mr Clegg's speech, his warm-up man Tim Farron made a joke about yellow not matching his blond hair, clicked his fingers, and suddenly the yellow we associate with the Lib Dems was replaced by a turquoise backdrop and the words "a fresh start for Britain". Turquoise: the colour of warm Caribbean seas; a place where whales do not meet unedifying and chilly ends but swim for ever. For psychologists and brand experts, it is supposed to evoke calm and compassion. Maybe Mr Clegg and his PR people are sending us a subliminal message: the Tories have the slogan "vote blue, go green" but we are actually delivering the beautiful marriage of these two colours. The problem is, in photographs and on TV it looked blue and is therefore indistinguishable from the Tories.
What others said
"The speech sounded bizarre and suggested Mr Clegg had succumbed to the delusion that his party is going to win at the next general election." Andrew Gimson, The Daily Telegraph
"His speech was delivered with poise. But much of it was the most tremendous hooey. Prime Minister, indeed!" Quentin Letts, Daily Mail
"It was a decent performance, his most assured in a leader's most awkward gig of the year. But it was not the speech of a prime minister in waiting." Michael White, The Guardian
What the IoS says
Mr Clegg said he wanted to be Prime Minister, which was a good start. He made a commitment to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000, reduce class sizes and offer apprenticeships for young people within 90 days of losing their job. Britain should not withdraw from Afghanistan but there should be a new strategy. Bathed in calming turquoise, the audience loved it. But then he asked us to imagine a "Liberal Democrat Cabinet". Beyond Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and Mr Clegg himself, it was difficult to imagine. The conference started badly and threatened to get worse, but Mr Clegg rescued the week with a confident performance. We will have to wait for the end of conference season to see if voters noticed.
Lib Dems by numbers
21ft The length of Gilbert the whale, who died on Bournemouth beach during the Lib Dem conference.
50 per cent The cut in road tax the Lib Dems would allow drivers in rural areas.
38 The number of times Nick Clegg said the word "change" in his speech.
9th The wedding anniversary on which Clegg addressed his party conference.
3min 14secs The length of the standing ovation after Nick Clegg's speech.
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