At last, after years and years of sailing difficult seas, land has been sighted by the Liberal Democrats. Now, for the first time, serious commentators are talking about the possibility that the party might become the official Opposition, and might even, by the election after next, aspire to being the largest party.
Never before has the political climate been so favourable to us. We have a government that was elected in June without enthusiasm and regarded with cynicism. We have a Tory party that is widely regarded with derision and distaste in equal measure, which the election of Iain Duncan Smith as leader is only likely to exacerbate.
The field is wide open then for the Lib Dems, and what has been the party's response? It has been to congratulate itself on having made a small advance in the general election in June and, for the most part, to sit back and to await developments, content to bask in the sunshine and allow the wind to take it gently in a favourable direction.
Since June, we Lib Dems have had a golden opportunity to capitalise on the favourable position we found ourselves in. Rather than simply let the wind carry us along, why have we not hoisted the sails and exploited the good political weather? We should really have taken advantage of the disarray in Tory ranks. We have been happy to echo commentators who suggest we could become the real Opposition, but we are not doing it. We should have used the big window provided by the summer months more effectively. Where were our leading lights over this period? With one or two honourable exceptions they were nowhere to be found. Is it a lack of confidence, or is it that some of us have yet to appreciate that an effective opposition really does have to oppose?
The approach we have followed since before 1997 has been to attack the Conservatives but to be less hard on Labour. It has been a continuation of the position taken all those years ago when Paddy Ashdown abandoned "equidistance", the idea that we were equally opposed to both the other parties. That made sense then, it made sense before the 1997 election, it may even have made sense while there was still a realistic proposition that Labour would sign up to a change to a fair voting system. It makes no sense now, and has not done so for some time. Charles was right last week to kill off the Joint Cabinet Committee with Labour, but why did it take so long?
We seem driven by a desire to concentrate only on winning Tory seats, and by a need not to position ourselves more than so many degrees from Labour, irrespective almost of where their policies take them. That is wrong.
In strategy terms, concentrating only on the Tories does not get us to where we want to be. Even if there were a total collapse in the Tory vote at the next election, we could pick up no more than 100 seats, still leaving us hundreds behind Labour. We need Labour seats too. If we are really aiming for government, we need to take Labour seats. Last time we gained just one. We will not gain them by tactical manoevering. We will do so if we stand up clearly for what we believe in.
In policy terms, we seem to be only too willing to accept much of the Labour agenda without a murmur. Inevitably, our conference in Bournemouth has been overshadowed by the international situation, but even so it has been possible to detect an undercurrent as attitudes that could be classified as "pro-project" – getting closer to Labour – make a comeback. But how can we hold the Government to account if we want to hold hands with it? How can we be an effective opposition if some of our key players are reluctant to oppose? When earlier this year I asked what became known as the killer question that led to the resignation of Peter Mandelson, I was congratulated by quite a few MPs. Sadly, they were overwhelmingly Tory and Labour. I was given a rough ride by some colleagues, while others remained silent. Never mind that for once the Lib Dems had scored a direct hit on government. Charles Kennedy was kind enough to pay tribute to me in public as an effective backbencher, so effective, in fact, that he believes I should continue in that role.
I want to hear Charles today tell us he is aiming for government, and see that he has the will, the energy and the strategy to get us there. Let us have confidence in ourselves. Let us tell the British people where we stand, and rally them to our cause.
That means setting out what we believe in, not taking policy positions for tactical reasons. We all want good quality, well funded public services. So why do some of us feel obliged to follow Labour down the private finance route? I find insulting the idea that the public sector cannot deliver, particularly given the poor record of private involvement in a whole range of projects from rail privatisation to computer upgrades within government. And if our schools and hospitals fall to private companies to develop, (and to pay higher borrowing rates than the Treasury would), what happens when the bad times come? Will the schools or the shareholders suffer?
We always trot out the mantra that the environment is at the heart of our policies. So why don't we talk about it? Is it because the others don't? Why was our excellent spokesman Malcolm Bruce virtually squeezed out of the main conference agenda?
If we are to seize the unique chance we are presented with, we must have the courage of our convictions and set out what we believe in. We must also ensure that we show a ruthless professionalism in our approach. That means working with our colleagues in the European and Scottish parliaments and the Welsh Assembly. And that our 52 MPs are used effectively.
The strengths and weaknesses of each individual must be identified, and roles allocated that in each case maximise the former, and minimise the latter. Gone are the days when jobs should be handed out on the basis of old pals, buggins turn, and who provides convivial company over a glass of Scotch at 11pm.
An historic opportunity is staring us in the face. We've all waited years for this. Let us not be content with the gentle progress that is coming our way. Let us be determined, professional and committed, and set sail, first to replace the Tories and then to reach the shores of government.
The author is Lib Dem MP for LewesReuse content