Largely by wandering about the stage and making some truly terrible jokes, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, tried hard to make his speech to last year’s Lib Dem conference lively and interesting, with – to put it mildly – doubtful results. Today he made no such effort. And got a standing ovation, possibly because the audience was relieved that he was quite boring.
He remained in one place. He brought a printed text, just in case the autocue broke down. Alluding to his “obsession” with tackling tax avoidance, he announced plans to close loopholes exploited by “private equity shareholders” and “partners in partnership firms”.
And he unfurled a hypnotic array of statistics to show that his party had helped to ensure the economy was “on the mend”.
He had warmed up earlier by opposing unilateralists in the defence debate. If not exactly Nye Bevan in 1957 – “you will send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference chamber…” – it hardly mattered since in its current ultra-responsible, loyal-to-the-leader mood the party defeated the call to scrap Trident anyway.
The jokes were not much better, but there were fewer of them. As in “Glasgow, or as we like to call it in Inverness, the deep south.” As though everyone south of the border thinks it’s in the Arctic Circle.
Or “Benjamin Franklin said: ‘Nothing is certain except death and taxes. And a conference announcement from Danny Alexander on tax avoidance’. OK, maybe he didn’t say that last bit.” (In case some pedant looked it up and triumphantly pointed out that the great polymath never said anything about Danny Alexander).
And there was the occasional clunking segue: “This great city has many claims to fame…it’s even the home of the new Doctor Who. So let me take you back in time. It’s spring 2010. We’re in the depths of the economic storm...”
Alexander is popular as well as powerful. But Charles Kennedy’s speech, a passionate appeal to the party to stick to its principles on Europe was a reminder how few real Lib Dem orators there are left. “I’m happier to be unpopular for that [“rational pro-Europeanism”] than I am for some of the things we’re having to swallow as a result of the age of austerity in which we live,” Kennedy pointedly declared.
Alexander’s Labour shadow, Rachel Reeves, pointed out that “Glamorous and exciting are probably not two things you would want from someone in charge of public finances.” Today Alexander, bordering at times on the narcotic, did not let her down.