Letter from Simon Kelner: Lib Dems' new life in the spotlight


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A good few years ago, at the end of a Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth, I was chatting with a senior BBC journalist.

It had been a very pleasant few days by the seaside and we both agreed what decent people these Lib Dem types were. You'll have to forgive the slightly questionable taste of this next remark, but my companion turned to me and adopted his best conspiratorial tone: "The thing about the Lib Dem conference," he said, "is that it's like the Paralympics." I knew instantly what he was getting at. There was a lot of worthy achievement and many highly motivated individuals, succeeding against the odds, but somehow it didn't really matter: the serious competition was taking place in another arena. There wasn't the heavy security of the other two conferences, senior members of the party were only too happy to talk to you and there was a general air of well-meaning amateurism.

I suppose the tone then was set by the leader, Charles Kennedy, whose mixture of loquaciousness, intelligence, unpredictability and chaotic organisation made him the personification of the party. For a couple of years, I did an interview with Mr Kennedy on stage at conference. I would ask questions sent in by readers of The Independent and supplied by party delegates. It was very much in keeping with the Kennedy administration that he didn't want advance warning of the questions. It was a quick ciggie backstage and then he was on, answering everything openly and candidly, including questions about his drinking and one from the floor which went: "Do you think you are a liability to the party?" It's not like that now.

This week's Lib Dem conference has been much more professional and carefully stage-managed. They are in government, for heaven's sake. So this is serious business. Security is tight. There is much more control from the centre of the party. They have had much more media air time than they must have ever thought possible. People are interested in splits on policy matters. Advance briefings on Nick Clegg's speech led the news bulletins on Wednesday. They've even had a sex scandal and yesterday, our two leading right-of-centre newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, both had pictures of Lib Dem women on the front page. Yes, these are heady days for the Lib Dems.

And while many party supporters might feel uncomfortable about aspects of coalition government, I don't imagine many would like a return to the days of obscurity.