Sketch: Too early for Trident excitement

It may have been early, but that didn’t stop Lib Dems from getting hung up – while hungover – on Trident.

By Alex Stevenson

9am is never a good time for party conferences. Most right-thinking delegates are crawling out of bed, nursing a hangover after the celebrations of the night before. The heady thrills of the Glee club, when the Liberal Democrats refuel their collective nuttiness by singing ridiculous left-wing songs that Labour wouldn’t be seen dead with, are only a few hours old. Nobody in their right mind would think of heading to the conference hall.

Yet some hardy souls did manage to stagger into the main arena for what, after all, was an emergency motion. Perhaps they were attracted by the glamour of the phrase, which is reminiscent of Churchill announcing the triumph of Dunkirk or Labour confirming the abolition of Peter Mandelson. It turned out there is not much exciting about the Lib Dems debating Trident, an issue on which the party is staggeringly united.

There is not much point to a debate without disagreement. Having firmly established its position at arms’ length from the coalition government, the Lib Dem conference has realised it can indulge in its favourite pastime, defeating the leadership with impunity. What a shame that the leadership agrees with the grassroots on nuclear issues, then, and what a shame it did not jump to condemn Trident more vehemently. Instead it asked conference to “press for the extension of the strategic defence and security review to allow a full review”- far from glamorous. A jeans-and-t-shirt young delegate, realising his mistake, spent the entire debate with his head in his hands.

Cambridge’s MP, who goes by the overwhelmingly Lib Dem name of Julian Huppert, kicked off proceedings by using upbeat words like “amazing” and “exciting”. Neither were applicable to the prospect of Lib Dems being opposed to Trident. This did not stop the Huppert, who lapped up the applause of perhaps 50 people gratefully. “Can you think of any other ways of spending this money?” he asked, a twinkle in his eye. “I can.”

Some charmingly bonkers Lib Dem speeches followed. “The very least the Liberal Democrats should insist on is that we buy less of the other kind of weapons of mass destructions – tanks, planes…” suggested Graham from Winchester. Lord Roberts, a Welsh Lib Dem peer with the blinking air of a well-meaning mole, quavered at the effect of a nuclear armageddon on another Lib Dem bugbear, climate change (presumably this would be bad). Steve from Loughborough dared to suggest a watering-down, rather than outright scrapping, of Trident. “If you want unilateral disarmament this ain’t gonna thrill you much,” he said. He was told to stop talking shortly afterwards.

Other contributions seemed less useful. The much-loved Shirley Williams indulged in some reminiscences, recalling a victory “nearly 30 years ago” in Crosby “because of the immense support of the Liberals”. Tessa Munt, a “baby whip”, threatened to resign on no basis whatsoever if her views were, improbably, disagreed with. Armed forces minister Nick Harvey was reassuring. “This story ain’t over yet,” he pledged, as he chewed on a non-existent cigar.

What promised to be the barmiest speech of all turned out to be the best. Janet King, a tall Lib Dem from Bromsgrove, began by advertising the T-shirt she was wearing. ‘Say “NO”‘, it read – to what we shall never know, for the podium was in the way. From the content of her speech it may have been Trident. She spoke “for the rest of the world” and looked ahead to a future when Britain would say sorry for its role in propagating nuclear weapons.

“We’re only knocking lightly on the door at the moment,” she said slowly, “but there is a time when we will apologise for keeping them waiting in fear for so long.” Ms King may be ahead of her time. She may be a head-in-the-clouds idealist. She was certainly a visionary.