‘The last days of Rome’: Behind the partying, the Lib Dems know there’s trouble ahead

The Liberal Democrats are having fun while they can. "It's the last days of Rome," as one delegate tells me in Glasgow. He is confident, upbeat, and expects his party will win at least 20 seats on May 7th next year.

That is, admittedly, at the lower end of the grassroots' expectations. The most determined think they could only lose a handful and have more than enough to prop up either Labour or the Conservatives (they'd prefer Labour). But in general, the mood is realistic. There is a price to be paid for power, and they are prepared to pay it.

Conferences can be deceptive, though. Last week in Birmingham any casual observer would have assumed the Conservatives had an overall majority in the bag. This time, in Glasgow, the natural assumption would be that another coalition seems feasible and achievable. Dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear that seems less plausible.

There are fewer members, for a start. All those broken promises and the public's clear disdain for coalition government mean only the robust core of Lib Dems have bothered to show up in Glasgow. This is a party which is making no secret of its plan to remain in power as long as it can.

First-time voters in particular are a big headache for the Lib Dems, who face tough challenges in places like Cambridge. But Julian Huppert's camp thinks the student vote will split three ways with Labour and the Greens, helped in part by his own robust opposition to tuition fees. The reliance on the Greens to split the Labour vote seems to be part of a theme. In Maidstone, where Ladbrokes have the Lib Dems' Jasper Gerard on 7-1 to oust Tory sports minister Helen Grant, it's hoped Ukip's presence will only boost their chances. In Newport East, where Paul Halliday wants to oust Labour's Jessica Morden, the question is whether the third-placed Tories are the party whose vote can be squeezed.

The Lib Dems know, more than any other party, that a presence on the ground is essential. It's why their incumbency factor is so strong. Will that be hit by coalition? Yes, of course – but what really matters is the strength of the local party. It's why you can see the Lib Dems at three per cent on one street and around 30% in another, they say. It explains their relative lack of concern about the national polling situation – they simply push it to the back of their brains because they know what really counts is the situation in their neck of the woods. The slogan on their election signs, 'winning here', sums it up.

"You can never do too much door-knocking," as one delegate puts it. The problem is that some are suggesting there is nowhere near enough door-knocking taking place. Too many of the party's seats are not hitting their target funding, one activist claims, because the incumbents have simply given up the ghost and there is no real effort to hold them. Polling numbers are useful to a point, but this is what really matters. And in too many seats there is simply not the same spirit to fight as there was in 2010. The Lib Dems may be bright and optimistic in Glasgow, but across the country the picture sounds more mixed.

It's the bloody-mindedness of Lib Dems that gets them past these dark home truths. They are prepared to pay a price for being in power and are going to do their best to get the best bargain possible next year. Journalists might be keen on asking questions about possible leadership speculation, but activists aren't particularly interested. They are geared up for the fight, babbling excitedly about defendable majorities and game-changing donations and achievable target seats as if anything is possible. Only the Lib Dems could be this upbeat in the face of disaster.