The Sketch: Perhaps the message is that they don't want a message

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The Independent Online

On the subject of the message. Why wasn't this the "4p off the basic rate of tax" conference? Vince Cable has been saying for years how unfair it is that the poorest pay the largest percentage of their wages in tax. The ground has certainly been prepared. Why don't they set out their pitch in that way we've become used to and bang on it about it?

If they don't keep repeating it, we don't really believe they mean it.

But maybe the strength of the Liberal Democrats will never be in a honed, polished, professionalised message. Maybe I'm just wrong about that.

Telling people what they're about with clarity, coherence and consistency could be a complete disaster. Split the party. Cause a collapse in their multifaceted appeal. If they had a carefully crafted position, supported with slogans and soundbites and everyone knew what they wanted – then they wouldn't be able to campaign on six contradictory things.

Anyway, consistency is irrelevant to their success. They aren't getting into government on the strength of their ideas. They'll get their feet under the table by invitation of the largest party in a hung parliament.

So maybe their strength is in their people. And goodness knows they're a pleasure to be with. You walk around the halls running into the most attractive MPs of any party. David Howarth, for instance: straight out of Wind in the Willows. Norman Baker: Parliament's most talented lurker. Paul Tyler, so intelligent and old-fashioned, like Joyce Grenfell's older sister. David Heath with his pet otter curled up inside his beard. And that nice young David Laws, who rehabilitated himself with some éclat yesterday, redeeming himself from his reputation as a crypto-Conservative.

Where Nick Clegg's passionate introduction of the immigration proposal met with a very flat reception, Laws' flat delivery got a standing ovation. He began with a clap-line that only Liberal Democrats respond to: "This makes me ashamed to be part of the country." (Britain.)

He was very composed and serious on the platform, softly spoken and unemphatic. He said some intelligent things too, a surprise in a conference speech. Devolution should not be the result of national politicians giving power to local politicians, he said. We hadn't heard that before. And of his background – that people of his sort either became a Conservative to protect their privileges or a progressive to try and grant those privileges to everyone. He told us about George Osborne offering him a place in the Tory Shadow Cabinet and made us laugh sympathetically. You wouldn't write Laws out of a leadership script.

His only drawbacks? Clarity, coherence and consistency. Oh, yes and when he said he wasn't a Conservative, a trick of the light perhaps, made him look uncannily like a young John Major.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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