The Liberal Democrats' spring conference was always going to be an opportunity for the party's rank and file to vent their dissatisfaction, even anger, with Nick Clegg and his fellow members of the Coalition. And, from their perspective, they had plenty to be dissatisfied about: from the U-turn on tuition fees through NHS reform to Mr Clegg's apparent soft-pedalling on differences with the Conservatives.
In the event, though, Mr Clegg pulled off a trick similar to the one he had managed at his party conference last autumn. Given the choice between being in government or out, the party has become rather partial to its modest slice of power. As in September, the protests were all outside the hall. Mr Clegg was given a respectful, not ecstatic, hearing.
There are signs, too, that he and his party are getting along better, even if they are not yet exactly enamoured of each other. This may be in part because Mr Clegg has discovered the merit of addressing concerns head-on. Thus he made no bones about the betrayal felt over tuition fees, and found a neat formula to deal with fears about the NHS: reform, yes; privatisation, no – and the principle of universality to remain sacrosanct.
Especially striking was Mr Clegg's effort to distinguish Liberal Democrat policies from those of his coalition partners. With the Coalition now in office almost a year, this could be because its survival now looks more certain than it did. It may also be a response to grassroots scepticism about the Liberal Democrats' contribution to legislation. Hence the emphasis on success in pursuit of the party's civil liberties agenda.
But it surely reflects also the same hard-headed calculation that led Mr Clegg recently to separate himself from David Cameron on multiculturalism. With the referendum on electoral reform approaching, the Liberal Democrats' central reason for going into government faces its crucial test. If there is a "yes" vote in May, this could in the end outweigh what is likely to be a very heavy loss of local council seats. And if not, not. To that extent, Mr Clegg remains on – mostly benign – probation.Reuse content