Lib Dem conference: It is now make-or-break time for Nick Clegg


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Despite – or perhaps because of – the Black (or Purple Paisley?) Saturday the Conservatives experienced last week, with a defection to Ukip and a pyjama'd sex scandal, the Tories were reinvigorated in Birmingham.

If Labour's conference was as flat as a pint of ale and as disappointing as an empty biscuit tin, the Conservative gathering was a bubbling, too-full glass of prosecco, triggering the sort of hyperactive giddiness that caused Boris Johnson to make jokes about Ukip activists having sex with vacuum cleaners and the Prime Minister accusing defector Mark Reckless of having a "fat arse". The threat of being denied victory because of Ukip was like a shot of adrenalin to the Conservatives. But, crucially, along with all the hysteria, David Cameron unveiled an electioneering, tax-cutting agenda.

It leaves the Lib Dems, whose conference started in Glasgow yesterday, having to shout pretty loudly to close the season. The Lib Dems were not mentioned at all in either Ed Miliband's or Cameron's speeches, and on the fringe in Birmingham all the talk was of a Tory pact with Ukip, not a second Lib-Con coalition. So how does the Deputy Prime Minister ensure conference season ends with a crescendo not a diminuendo by the Clyde?

On the basis of his rally speech last night, Clegg's first move is to get personal: he said Cameron was torn between being a "rich man's Nigel Farage and a poor man's Margaret Thatcher", and an acknowledgement that, at 6 per cent in the polls, the Lib Dems are the underdogs as never before. Next, there will be a reminder of all the "feel-good" policies that the coalition has introduced since 2010 which, his aides insist, were Lib Dem ideas: the tax cut for low income earners, extending childcare, the pupil premium, free school meals, the biggest ever reform of pensions.

Then, there will be a sitting-tight call for discipline which must continue until the start of the election campaign proper in April. By next weekend, there may even be a small uplift in the polls, as there always is after conference. Yet those in Clegg's circle admit that, despite any post-conference bounce, they are unlikely to see any significant poll movement for their party until the general election campaign starts properly in April. Where the Lib Dems have no MPs, their organisation is pretty thin on the ground. This explains why the party was able to hold the Eastleigh by-election, but its vote dwindled in other by-election battles where they were not the incumbents.

The strategy is to consolidate in their strongest areas – there is not much use in increasing the popular vote if it is thinly spread across the country. In 2010, the Lib Dems won 24 per cent of the vote, with one million more people backing them than in 2005, yet they lost six seats. But even where they have MPs now, support is draining away – in Scotland and in the north of England, the picture for Clegg is bleak. His circle complains there is no "echo chamber" of support in the media.

Everything, they argue, will be about the final, short campaign and, crucially for Clegg, the leaders' television debates. Negotiations between the parties, with two from each team, are due to start any day now on the timing and format of the debates. Labour and the Lib Dems have joined forces – an informal coalition, if you like – to fight for the debates to be as in 2010, during the four-week election campaign. They also have no problem sharing a platform with Nigel Farage. Yet Cameron is pushing for the debates to start in February so they do not dominate the four-week campaign, and wants to block the Ukip leader because, he argues, the party has no MPs.

When Clegg says that his party is in the fight of their lives, he is right: next May, the Lib Dems will either be the strongest party in Westminster, holding the balance in a hung Parliament, or facing near oblivion with only a handful of seats. It could come down to the timing of those TV debates.

Poll to poll

It is easy to see why the Tories were so upbeat at their conference. Cameron's announcement of tax cuts for low and middle income earners led to the Tories having their first poll lead over Labour for two years. Yet the detail of that YouGov poll shows that, while raising the lower rate threshold to £12,500 is popular, the upper rate change, lifting those on £41,000 to £50,000 out of 40 per cent tax, is not. A substantial 39 per cent of people think increasing the upper threshold is the "wrong priority". (Average incomes are £26,500.)

What might give the Tories more reason to cheer is not a headline-grabbing tax cut but the development, under party chairman Grant Shapps, of VoteSource, a new online database that lets party activists use their mobiles to check canvassing records while they are out on the doorstep. It replaces Merlin, the computer system which kept crashing during the European elections and could hold the key to an outright Tory victory.

Keep up at the back!

When Clegg greets his wife Miriam on stage at the end of his speech on Wednesday, it is going to feel like the close of the longest conference season. For some of my colleagues, they have been on the road for weeks.

One exhausted national newspaper journalist has covered the final two weeks of the Scottish referendum campaign from early September, Labour's conference in Manchester, a flit to New York with the Prime Minister for the UN General Assembly, then to Birmingham with the Tories before travelling to Bristol on Wednesday for Ukip's "big announcement", which turned out to be a photocall with their new donor.

She then flew to Afghanistan with Cameron on Thursday before arriving back in the UK late on Friday, and will go on to Glasgow for the Lib Dems this weekend. When that is all over, she has been despatched to Clacton for this Thursday's by-election. I hope she's collecting air miles.

Miliband speechless

Nearly two weeks on from Ed Miliband's conference speech, my colleague John Rentoul points out that the text has still not appeared on Labour's website, Has the Labour leader written to Google asking for the right to be forgotten?