Analysis: What the free schools defeat means for the Lib Dem leadership

The first ‘coalition conference’ is anything but, as the first major defeat for the Lib Dem leadership shows.

By Alex Stevenson

Instead of uniting behind the government’s agenda the Liberal Democrats appear determined to use their week in the limelight to highlight the differences between their policies and those of their ministers.

Schools minister Sarah Teather, whose amendment to a motion damning the coalition’s plans for free schools and academies was defeated by delegates this lunchtime, is the first victim of this process.

Triumphant cheers from a small group of Lib Dem campaigners as the party’s leadership were rebuffed underlined the strength of feeling which surrounded today’s debate. All present knew the implications of this vote went far beyond the (relatively) narrow issue of the future of Britain’s schools.

Yet their victory is no surprise to the party’s deputy leader, Simon Hughes, who told politics.co.uk last night he was determined for conference to show “this is our place, our policy”.

His expectations were confirmed, with roughly two-thirds of delegates in the conference hall voting against Teather’s amendment in the crucial vote.

The narrative is clear. Lib Dems have placed a line in the sand. Their conference will not be used to rubber-stamp the coalition government’s policies, even if it makes ministers such as Teather deeply uncomfortable.

Yet there is a sense Hughes’ tacit acceptance, indeed enthusiasm, for this approach highlights the usefulness of this narrative for the wider coalition project.

The Lib Dems make the difference between being in and out of government for the Conservatives. By going through this very public process of discomfort and concern the junior partner’s leverage in behind-closed-door negotiations between the two parties will become much easier.