Conference Sketch: Lib Dems' barbarian slayer breezes on to stage with the air of a friendly chipmunk

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The Independent Online

She was billed as the hurricane that hit Brent East. But the whirlwind that spun on to the conference platform yesterday, to the euphoric cheers from activists, looked neither fierce nor menacing.

True, she had just demolished the Labour Party in a by-election victory, but Sarah Teather was less than five feet tall and breezily calm, with the look of a friendly chipmunk. "Sarah, we love you," screamed one heckler. The conference floor agreed, and burst into cheers. "I don't know why you are clapping me," she said, with a winsome smile. "I am obviously the product of a strategic blunder."

Ms Teather, 29, was referring to Iain Duncan Smith's declaration that winning was a mistake for the Liberal Democrats. "The Tories pulled a master stroke last week by coming a poor third," she added. "The good news, ladies and gentlemen, is that they intend to go on doing it."

This was too much for the Lib Dem faithful. They shrieked with glee and waved bright yellow placards in the air.

The scholarly Liberal Democrat peer Earl Russell had tears streaming down his face. "I'm as pleased as punch," he said. Simon Hughes, candidate for London Mayor, grinned maniacally, calculating no doubt that his chances of beating Red Ken had improved overnight.

"Polished. Quiet but deadly," whispered Frank Elliott, a delegate in comfortable shoes from Devon "They should get her a box to stand on."

This was an old-fashioned triumph and the throng was enthralled. The victorious candidate had returned from a spot of barbarian slaying in the outer reaches of the Lib Dem empire. All that remained was to lead the Labour candidate, Robert Evans, in chains along Brighton seafront.

Then Ms Teather, standing alone in the middle of the conference stage like a junior Ann Widdecombe, did her humble bit. "Seriously I need to say a really big thank you" she said. "I will never forget the bus load that came to help from Cardiff. They were terrifying in their identical T-shirts."

"Hip-hip hooray," cheered the delegates, slicker than five years ago. The age of sandal wearing was over. These were the New Lib Dems who could beat Tony Blair's crew and humiliate the Tories.

Or were they? Yesterday there were signs that the lunatics were merely hibernating. "We have an amazing fruit cake of policies," declared Donnachadh McCarthy, a Southwark councillor, in a comment that might have been considered cryptic had he delivered it elsewhere. Here, it meant that his party appealed equally to disaffected Tory and Labour voters.

Meanwhile, Julia Gash was taking time out from her job as a purveyor of sex toys to tour the hallways as a Lib Dem MEP candidate. "In a sense," she said, "I am quite fresh off the streets."