Sartorial inelegance and bon mots are order of day

Lib Dems In Glasgow
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The Independent Online
To be fair, always a mistake, Liberal Democrats have a decent standard of debate. Academic research tells us that more of them went to university than did Labour people. As for all the Tories, they emerge as a bunch of car salesmen and market-floor odds-givers when young and greeters at Caesar's Palace (or the NatWest) when old heavyweights retire.

The educational increment shows chiefly on the conference floor. Earnest, the rank and file maybe, but they don't rant like Labour delegates - "This is a totally vicious, obscene Tory policy, comrades!" - nor produce the aversion therapy of your Tory-aspirant, part smarm, part snarl.

Paddy Ashdown gets no genuflections here ... and not that many mentions. Cringing reverence for the leader goes down here like High Mass in Hampden Park.

Costume is instructive here as well. In City of London terms: "T-shirts have eased sharply, jeans had a quiet day, but disgraceful sweaters continued steady while nice suits moved marginally up. Though Tory chalk stripe found few takers." Sartorially, the Lib-Dems have moved out of jumble- chic, but no one would mistake them for a convention of bondwashers.

The eccentricity count is diminishing here as well despite the odd stroppy old gent like Rowland Morgan: "How many cards opposed the motion, madam chairman?"

"There were reservations, but no one saying `It's rubbish, throw it all out'."

"Well you're wrong because I did!"

But the era is long gone of personalities bursting out of too-small sweaters, of Claire Brooks on auto-paroxysm. The new style is less self-indulgent though it can be moving.

Dr Anthony Lynch, a Gloucester GP speaking in the unemployment debate, got gimlet-specific about Cinderford, that old anomaly, the working-class town in royalty-tinged, cavalry-twill Gloucestershire. Cinderford, next door to the Beaufort Hunt, is anomalous and working class no more - no work, no anomaly. Dr Lynch spoke of the boarded-up shops of "Plywood City" in grave quiet ways to stick in the mind better than outrage.

By contrast humour is permitted at this grave assembly, if on a lead, and well behaved. Edward Davey, a brisk young man from Kingston, was rotten about Norman Lamont. The man who had said unemployment was "a price worth paying", was fearfully close to following his own precept. His own seat abolished, his pilgrimage of grace through Yorkshire seats unrewarded, Lamont now sought nomination in Kingston and Surbiton.

A cruel smile played around Mr Davey's thin lips as he gave "A message to the local Conservative association, `Give Norman a job'."

But the quality of the platform wasn't bad either. Admittedly Malcolm Bruce on finance tends to shout on tip-toe; and Robert Maclennan, one of nature's football results readers, does a line in stressed syllables and expansive arm gestures which hint at Sir Donald Wolfit.

Good speech though: Bits of Matthew Arnold, Debussey being beastly to Grieg - "Pink bonbons stuffed with snow", this directed at Tony Blair's policies - the film, Psycho (the Conservative and Unionist party compared with the Bates Motel) - Roy Campbell on snaffles, bits and bloody horses (also aimed at the great Labour idea-vacuum).

He had compiled an anthology of deft put-downs from the Literary Canon. You couldn't make a speech like that to the Tories. They don't have the hinterland.

But the cream of Maclennan was his handling of the Tony Blair kissogram. This has had delegates bubbling with the mild paranoia which makes conference life fun. Paddy, they reckon, might well flutter a susceptible eyelash.