Andrew Grice: The week in politics

Without Iraq, this is a party in search of a cause
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When the Liberal Democrats kick off the party conference season tomorrow, be prepared to see lots of white teeth. Party officials have jokingly dubbed the Brighton event "National Smiles Week". The party has got to look cheerful even though it has little to smile about. At best, it has been treading water this summer. At worst, it has been sinking in the opinion polls, eclipsed by the struggle between Gordon Brown and David Cameron for control of its natural centre-ground territory.

Liberal Democrats are busy telling each other they have got to hold their nerve: the Brown honeymoon won't last and the Tory leader can't win, they say. The trouble is that the Liberal Democrats have been holding their nerve for a long time. At times, they feel more like a party waiting for something to turn up. Menzies ("don't call me Sir") Campbell, the party leader, knows that a media largely hostile to the third party will try to turn the conference into another test of his authority. The story that the press wants to run is "Ming must go". His team has cooked up a story a day to try to keep the ravenous media pack happy. But the media's appetite will be for criticism of the leader.

As it happens, there isn't nearly as much internal sniping as the headlines suggest. Most Liberal Democrats have too much respect for "Ming". They think the party would look ridiculous if it killed its second leader within two years. They cannot risk switching leaders when an election is in the offing. They look at Mr Brown and see a man who might still call a snap election this autumn, pointing out that he has tried to kick difficult issues like the health service into touch by promising review after review.

They say the Prime Minister's determination to wrong-foot the Tories on an almost daily basis (as his meeting with Margret Thatcher on Thursday demonstrated) is another pointer to an early election. Many Liberal Democrats are not even sure that being led by Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne would magically transform the party's fortunes. There might be a short-term boost. But any leader would still face the same squeeze as the big two parties battled it out.

True, there is frustration in the Liberal Democrats' ranks. Sometimes there are rumblings about the leader, but they are faint and fizzle out. While Ming wins praise for creating a strong frontbench and election team, some allies want him to be a bit more ruthless.

His self-confidence can sometimes be a handicap. He wants to give his younger colleagues their head rather than grab all the glory for himself. Yet some of them wish he would steal their best policies because that is what leaders do.

Then there is the age issue. It is unfair, but it is there. Sixty-six is not "old" but he looks much older than Mr Cameron and Mr Brown. Ming is preparing to address the ageists head on. He plans to try to make a virtue out of his experience, perhaps by asking people who is the right person to make life-and-death decisions affecting British troops.

His judgement on Iraq was indeed right. But with political pressure growing on both sides of the Atlantic for troops to come home, Iraq is no longer an issue the Liberal Democrats can rely on. They need a new Unique Selling Point.

Ming plans to turn the convergence between Labour and the Tories to his advantage, attacking a "cosy conspiracy" between the big two parties on a growing number of issues including nuclear power, nuclear weapons, the council tax, civil liberties, city academies and tuition fees.

His big idea has been formed in unlikely places – unpublicised visits to shelters for the homeless and centres for drug addicts. He thinks no one is speaking up for the dispossessed and wants to be their voice.

Sceptics will say there are not many votes to garner from drug addicts and the homeless and by championing a "coalition of the powerless." That is not the point; there is a wider canvas. Plenty of relatively well-off voters care about Britain's divided society and the gap between the rich and the poor. Labour's record on social mobility is disappointing. Ming is genuinely angry that a Labour Government protects the non-domicile status of private equity bosses who pay 10 per cent tax, less than their cleaners. He plans to show it.

Perhaps, some Liberal Democrats hope, Labour has travelled so far that it has left a gap in the market on the left. Others fret that taking up such causes will hardly help the Liberal Democrats fend off a Tory recovery in their most vulnerable seats. But the third party's number crunchers insist it is wrong to assume it will have fewer MPs after the next election because it can win seats from Labour in the north.

As ever, the biggest task for the third party is to convince people that they would not be wasting their votes by supporting it. But that leads it into the minefield of talking about a hung parliament.

It is not impossible that the Liberal Democrats will hold the balance of power after the next election. Their problem is that the outcome they want is not one they can openly campaign for. "Vote for instability and uncertainty" is not a very promising slogan. A lot of treading water lies ahead.