For Nick Clegg, his party conference must come almost as a relief. The Liberal Democrats are proving to be surprisingly disciplined, at least when they meet for their annual gathering. For the past two years, an army of journalists has sought dissenting voices calling for an end to the partnership with the Conservatives and discovered instead a resolute determination to stay the course.
I expect the same next week in Brighton, accompanied by even more speeches than 12 months ago from senior party figures making clear they are not Conservatives, never have been Conservatives and, indeed, loathe most Conservatives. This ambiguity marks what is left of the Liberal Democrats now that they have lost so many councillors and much support from voters.
Yet both the public loyalty and attacks on their Coalition partner are close to meaningless. If there were to be moves against Clegg, the most obvious manifestation of disloyalty, they would not appear at a party conference but from within his parliamentary party, and on the basis that MPs calculate that they could save their seats. Clegg is safer at a party conference than he might be at Westminster in a year’s time.
The attacks on the Conservatives, very marked last year from, among others, Chris Huhne, then still in the Cabinet, and Tim Farron, the party’s President, make no difference to public perception. Polls suggest that voters have more or less made up their minds about what they think of the Liberal Democrats’ willingness to form a partnership with a party of the radical right, not so much the decision but the policy agenda that arose from it. There is little to be gained from attacking a party while giving it the space to implement policies.
What the conference does provide is separate space for the Liberal Democrats to give clearer definition of what they stand for as a party. The conference is not about the leadership of Clegg. For what it is worth, I do not believe that he will stand down voluntarily and I do not see how he can fall victim to an internal coup when a substantial section of the Liberal Democrats are ministers in a government of which he is deputy Prime Minister. In particular, I do not see how Vince Cable can mount a challenge when he is in the same Cabinet as Clegg, and doubt whether Cable will resign in order to make his insurrectionary moves.
It is very easy for a party to blame a leader for its plight, but nearly always the reasons for raging unpopularity are much deeper. In this case, Clegg secured the agreement of the parliamentary party and the wider membership for his decision to form a coalition with the Conservatives. His MPs supported the decision to triple tuition fees and voted for the original NHS reforms. They all backed the contentious deficit reduction strategy, and still do. It is true that Mr Cable is an openly declared social democrat, whose hero is the former Labour leader John Smith. It is also true that instinctively he could not show the early enthusiasm for the partnership with the Conservatives that Clegg displayed. Equally, Cable cannot show the angry loathing of Labour that Clegg can display and prefers instead to convey a degree of respectful affection.
But Cable signed up to the partnership with the Conservatives, joined the Cabinet, supports the deficit reduction strategy, was the minister in charge of the increase in student fees, and also voted for the various contentious reforms pioneered by right-wing Conservative Cabinet ministers. Perhaps he is agile enough to escape from this as a new leader of his party in the build up to the election, but I doubt it will be quite as easy as some assume. Those who are certain Clegg will not lead his party into the next election include Ed Miliband and some senior Cabinet ministers. If this were solely a story about Clegg, I would be certain, too. But it is not. It is about his party.
This is where next week’s conference assumes a degree of importance. There is one advantage of the Liberal Democrats’ current situation and it is a significant one. As a party of government, they are treated seriously. As the next election may well lead to another hung parliament, they will continue to matter, even if they are slaughtered. For a few days, parts of the media at least will pay attention. This is in marked contrast to their conferences before the election when, by some freakish coincidence, major news stories erupted around what was already an insignificant gathering. Now they are noticed and rightly so.
As I wrote on Tuesday, the time for considered introspection for the Lib Dems will be when this current experiment draws to a close. But in the meantime, their leading figures, not just Clegg, have a duty to offer some definition as to why they are a necessary, distinct force. There is a case to be made for Orange Book Liberals to join the Conservative Party and fight their corner there, and for Social Democrat Liberals to join or form a partnership with Labour, a party of the centre-left, a place where most of them claim to be. Given that I can hear as I write both wings of the Liberal Democrats scream in horror at such a proposition, they have an obligation to explain what makes them distinct, in a way that is coherent and principled rather than woolly, fuzzy and unprincipled.
In several key areas, there is a very strong case to be made. Even in this Coalition, the Liberal Democrats have emerged as powerful advocates of constitutional reform, radical redistribution through taxation, pro-Europeans, pro-environment, pro-civil liberties, internationalist and, to some extent, supporters of a more active industrial policy.
Their deep problem is in two areas. First, they have had limited success in policy terms, with the collapse of the House of Lords reform only the most recent example. Again this is not an issue about Clegg. No other leader could have tried harder to secure consensus. Second, they are deeply divided in their attitudes towards the state and what “localism” means in practice. Some senior figures were genuinely enthusiastic about the original NHS reforms, seeing them as a brilliant fusion of their support for localism and the Tories’ love of markets, while others were alarmed and with good cause to be so.
No doubt much will be written and broadcast about Clegg next week, but addressing these more fundamental areas matters much more if the Liberal Democrats are to survive as a national force.