The Week in Review: Overjoyed by unpopularity

Hint: The man is the Lib Dems. The waves are the voters. Or something.
Hint: The man is the Lib Dems. The waves are the voters. Or something.
Alex Stevenson By

The Lib Dems endured a terrible attack of Brighton wind. It wasn't pleasant for anyone concerned.

How the winds blew. The Brighton shorefront was almost deserted for much of the week, despite the presence of large numbers of liberal-minded politicians gathering in the conference centre. They sheltered behind the security barriers in the snug comfort of the Grand hotel, happily sipping hot drinks and contemplating the far harsher political winds which are now buffetting their party. Despite everything, the Liberal Democrats did not flinch. They spent the week feeling good about themselves, and learning to embrace being unpopular. It's all part of being a party of government, you see.

Whether it was the unexpected return of former leader Paddy Ashdown to a key role ahead of the 2015 general election, Nick Clegg's rather poor performance at Scalextric or speculation about the relative merits of the deputy prime minister's tuition fees apology, there was certainly plenty to talk about. Wandering around the conference centre was a strange experience. Lib Dem delegates are a very eclectic bunch, but tend to coalesce around well-meaning, if ever so slightly bonkers, middle-aged idealists. If it wasn't for all their moaning at the way the media is treating them - a sure sign that they are now a part of the establishment - you'd have thought this was the good old days when Lib Dem conferences were a great opportunity to relax, have fun, and not have any real responsibility at all.

One man who has a lot of responsibility but doesn't seem too comfortable in its company was Andrew Mitchell, David Cameron's new chief whip, whose undiplomatic brush with police officers outside Downing Street last week continued to cause him trouble. He was forced to apologise rather shamefacedly, but limited the moral effect of saying 'sorry' by refusing to even say the word 'pleb' out loud. His efforts to draw a line under the gaffe, if that's a fair way of describing it, were frustrated by the publication of the police officer's log flatly contradicting his account of events.

By Thursday the news channels had had enough of Mitchell and the Lib Dems, but a fresh story had emerged to capture the attention: David Cameron's questionable date with David Letterman on the Late Show. The prime minister's performance was fine, even if he did (allegedly, as Boris would say) fail to work out what Magna Carta actually means in Latin. It was all a bit humiliating, for the PM and the country he represents. We got our own back, though, via the bizarre story that Cameron had preferred to finish his game of tennis rather than chit-chat to a waiting Barack Obama. Downing Street were baffled, but it meant that the PM could at least finish the week with a smile on his face.

Coming up next week is the Labour party conference. We're off to Manchester to assess the state of the left, full of beans and ahead in the polls, but as impotent as ever amid the wilderness of opposition. By way of a warm-up, there have been one or two stories emerging from the Labour party. Ed Miliband's shadow chancellor Alan Johnson has been sniping at his leader; Ed Balls has been hinting at sweeping spending reviews if Labour win in 2015; and Harriet Harman has been revealing some, but not all, of her thoughts on... 50 Shades Of Grey.


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