The week in politics: Slow-motion Lib Dem breakdown

Decline into childhood fantasy?
Decline into childhood fantasy?

Everything you need to know, and couldn't be bothered to ask, about the Lib Dem conference.

By Ian Dunt

Conference season is sickening enough, but now the Liberal Democrats are in government it's become 33% longer. Coalition has many flaws, but adding a whole extra week to the political calendar must surely be chief amongst them. The small, tepid meeting of socks-and-sandals that used to be the Lib Dem conference has made way for a battalion of suited lobbyists and drunken journalists, the vast majority of them irreparably broken inside, who spend four days seething with resentment at having to be there at all.

This year's event started, as it always does, with a suicide-inducing comedy routine from Sarah Teather and a laugh-a-minute motivational speech from Nick Clegg. Standards were so low party president Tim Farron was greeted as a comedy genius. At the point of oblivion, there's the need for laughter. But gallows humour could not stifle the questions. Could the party survive? Are there any words at all Nick Clegg will not emit from his mouth if it's politically desirable? Who are all these funny odd-shaped men claiming to be ministers of state? These and other such questions were left mostly unanswered for a political strategy which saw every high-profile Lib Dem drafted in to abuse their Conservative colleagues, like an insecure teenager mocking the girl he's secretely in love with.


Chris Huhne inserted half a dozen 'impromptu' asides into his speech, proclaiming how hurt he was the Tories had been horrid to his party leader during the AV campaign. That's the same party leader he will inevitably try to replace in the near future, of course. Vince Cable suggested George Osborne was the descendant of the people who used to send children down the chimneys, rather than just another curtain twitching upper-middle class family with lofty social aspirations.

It was tremendously unappetising, but one doesn't go to these things for nutrition, one goes because of professional duty or clinical sadomasochism. By Wednesday, several things had been accomplished, and by accomplished I mean they had come to pass and no-one died. The Lib Dems adopted the most liberal policy position of any mainstream party on drugs since criminalisation. Huhne decided to take on the big six energy companies. Danny Alexander had continued an unbeaten streak of epic broadcast interview fails which now stretches across his entire career. And everyone had made it very, very clear that the 50p tax rate was here to stay.

The only part anyone really enjoyed was playing the 'what stage of mental and emotional breakdown has Clegg reached' game. He's been no fun at that lately. Back in the day, his face would grimace and laugh during PMQs, the existential anguish written all over his delicate features. Now, he sits on the front bench impassive, like the Buddha if he'd only stuck it out for a couple of hours under that tree.

At conference, it was a kaleidoscope of despair. The early part saw him bubbly and happy, as if the entire personality had finally collapsed into childhood fantasy. Perhaps the process was complete and the breakdown had finally occurred, we thought. It was not to be. A Q&A session later in the week saw an entirely new personality emerge – the demon headmaster. In a bizarre and unspeakably ill-conceived approach, Clegg marched around the stage telling off party members for not listening, for clapping in the wrong place and for not asking enough questions. It was like being castigated by a pair of wet socks.

But conferences are about the leader's final speech and Clegg's was a traditional mixture of surprisingly well-written prose, strained logic and piss-poor delivery. The message? 'It's been really bad, like so seriously bad I may have completely ruined the party forever. But look, don't worry about it. It might end up alright. Oh, and I'm going to set up a summer school for kids.'

Whether the speech was well received or not was hard to tell. By the next morning, everyone seemed blissfully unaware it had taken place at all. The great city of Birmingham shrugged its collective shoulders, turned away and looked ahead at a future that would be free of party political conferences for at least another 12 months. The collection of hacks, lobbyists and misfits left the ICC conference centre, retreating to the familiar sights of London and its encouraging anonymity.

Next week: Labour.
 

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