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Assessing the mood of the Liberal Democrats

Michael Crick | 15:48 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011

The Liberal Democrats are holding their so-called spring conference in Sheffield today, and I would have loved to have been there.

My colleague Iain Watson will be reporting from Sheffield tonight. (I was originally going to the European Council in Brussels, but then Newsnight decided not to send me to that either.)

The conference will be a good chance to assess the mood of the Lib Dems as they meet only a dozen miles or so from their disastrous sixth place in the by-election in Barnsley Central last week.

I suspect, however, that the unhappiness will largely be confined below the surface this weekend - experienced activists know that any sense of party disunity is the best way to lose even more votes.

But if the Lib Dems do badly in the various elections in May, and lose the AV referendum too, it may be impossible to contain the discontent.

But one of the things the Coalition has going for it is the lack of potential rebel leaders. This applies equally to the Conservative right as it does to the Lib Dem left.

Nick Clegg is fortunate in how few heavyweight dissidents he faces amongst his own MPs these days.

Bob Russell and Mike Hancock, serial rebels who once shared a flat, are not regarded as heavyweight figures.

And one of the curious upsides to last May's disappointing general election result, when the Lib Dems lost seven seats, is that the casualties included several independently-minded MPs who might have become formidable critics of the Coalition, notably Paul Holmes (Chesterfield), Sandra Gidley (Romsey), Evan Harris (Oxford East) and arguably Lembit Opik (Montgomeryshire).

The most impressive left-wing figure among Lib Dem MPs in this Parliament is the new party president, Tim Farron.

I remember interviewing Farron on Kendal High Street on the day he was first elected in 2005, and wondering why the party couldn't have found a better candidate, thinking Farron should never have been promoted beyond local government.

He has grown hugely in stature since then, boosting his majority in Westmoreland and Lonsdale from a precarious 267 to a whopping 12,264. He is rapidly become the darling of the party conference, an excellent speaker with a superb collection of jokes. And, over the last ten months, Farron has acted very carefully, rationing his criticism of Coalition policy to the big issues.

Ministerial resignations might provide other rebel leaders, and here the most worrying contenders for Clegg would be Vince Cable and Chris Huhne. Huhne's radical credentials are questionable, though I suspect the man who has contested the leadership twice during just six years in Parliament remains as ambitious as ever.

The other man to keep a close eye on is Charles Kennedy. Nobody really knows if he has overcome his drink problem (and alcoholism is never really cured), but he has long made clear his distaste for the Coalition. Kennedy remains very popular in the party at large, but been has careful not to voice his doubts very much since last May.

Some at Westminster believe that Nick Clegg will not be Lib Dem leader at the time of the next election, due in May 2015. A face-saving exit for Clegg would be Britain's European commissionership (currently held by Cathy Ashton), which becomes vacant again at the start of 2015.

It would enable Clegg to avoid the embarrassment of losing his seat in Sheffield (which has a heavy student population), and allow his party to make a fresh start with a new face, perhaps one untainted by personal involvement in the Coalition.

And I had to guess, I'd say the best bet for that fresh face would be Tim Farron.


  • Comment number 1.

    Kennedy is the one to watch in terms of grabbing the public imagination. (Alcoholism may not be curable but it is controllable - I write from personal experience). Cable gets it in terms of his grasp of the situation and his evident understanding of economics - a rare gift in the Lib Dems. Huhne - well can you survive three bites at the cherry? Farron's biggest problem as I see it is that I have never heard of him. I have been away from the UK for some years so that may be my ignorance but potential party leaders need a profile beyond the party if they are going to progress.

  • Comment number 2.


    If only Clegg could grasp the fact that his ambition (and Dave's cunning) led him to sell his soul and dump the devoted! The scales might fall from his eyes to reveal the illegitimacy of this coalition. Despite the oft-repeated lie, no one voted 'coalition', not even as second preference! By breaking the pernicious pact, Nick would salvage some honour; if he then resigned as LibDem leader, his stock would soar.

    Sadly, in the search for a hero, Robin Cook died. Clare Short delayed. David Davis played Janus and Nick does not have the bottle.

    Oh - it's all going awfully well.

  • Comment number 3.

    2 - barriesingleton

    My great hope was for someone who could finally bury the two party system once and for all. The AV referendum just might be the last chance but if that fails, it is all over bar the shouting.

  • Comment number 4.


    I go another step: What difficult enterprise is served by dividing into two or more antagonistic factions, before addressing anything?

    Westminster is not configured to attract mature individuals, capable of constructive, co-operative management; it is organised for internal, ritualised conflict, that expensively neutralises all that is good, while attracting fools and knaves.

    Having read the transcripts of adversaries Nick and Dave, on AV, despair is the only proper stance.


  • Comment number 5.

    'so-called spring conference'

    Just wondering how it gets to be 'so-called'.

    It's spring. And they seem to be having a conference.

  • Comment number 6.

    JunkkMale - doesnt look like Spring outside my window (in Edinburgh)!!

    Back on topic:

    It will be painful to watch the broken record that is Clegg whine on yet again about the mess he's trying to clear up. He clearly doesnt understand that the electorate have moved on and is far more bothered about the total abdication of policies by the LibDems in order to taste power.

    May elections could possibly be enough of a disaster to precipitate a stalking horse on Clegg in time for 'Autumn' conference season. For the LibDems the only way back is to get ready of this closet Tory otherwise all they will have achieved is a proper roll back to 2 party UK politics (we've just about got that up here already - Labour and SNP).

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm afraid that I heard Tim Farron on Saturday morning on 5Live saying that if the Liberals had not gone into coalition with the Tories then the borrowing rate for the government would have risen to '14 or 15 per cent'. The invisible bond vigilantes are as alive and well here as elsewhere in the Liberal Party: the idea that the borrowing rate is low because companies have repaired their balance sheets since the crash but there now have no extra demand to trigger job expansion (remember Keynes, he was a Liberal after all), so all that money has flooded the money markets and driven down the 10 year bond rate, seems beyond the pale.

    This is why I believe that Thatcherism ended in 2007-8: never before in its history had the Tory Party put such faith in the City, and New Labour and now the Orange Book Liberals are following suit (see above for the invisible bond vigilantes and belief in the confidence fairy). But that all presupposed that the central bank has traction, which it clearly has to put up interest rates but not to lower them. Liquidity trap analysis has been around since the 1930s and been a part of mainstream economics since the 1940s, but the nostrums of Thatcher-Reaganism have done a very good job, both in politics and in journalism, to remove 80 years of economic knowledge - but not from the central banks and not from academe. At least the next year will prove to the Coalition that austerity in a liquidity trap is never expansionary - but what the polticis will look like after that is anyone's guess.

  • Comment number 8.


    Earthquakes would appear to be some threat to Nuclear power plants. It looks as if Tokyo either took a calculated risk, or it never crossed their minds.

    It is now generally acknowledged the wholesale electrical disruption can come about if a major CME comes this way. Most Nukes do not sit over fault lines, but they all operate 'under the Sun'. Bad enough when all the Tesco fridges pack up, but Nukes going 'foom' all round the globe?

    And I'll bet all radiation suits are made in China - with a price hike!

  • Comment number 9.

    The lack of any potential senior people to lead a rebellion against the Orange Book Coup Cabal is telling.

    Clegg and his Orange Book mates put their policies to the LibDem Policymaking body and had them rejected. They then ignored the official manifesto and wrote whole swathes of the Orange Book into the coalition agreement - in effect an anti-party democracy coup from within, in the teeth of what voters were told the LibDems would do in government.

    The rank & file of the Party know they're been bounced, but no one seems willing to take Clegg on and hold him to account for tearing up their manifesto behind their backs.

    The LibDems are now facing electoral Armageddon, yet they only seem able to rattle the sword about the Tory NHS restructuring and no one is directly challenging the Clegg Cabal.

    One has to say if the LibDem rank & file is so lilly livered, they deserve to be decimated: and this looks extremely likely. Without a fraction of councillors or councils after May, with the PLDP looking over its shoulder at a uniformally hostile electorate at the next General Election, Clegg & co will jump ship to find a new home - as Tory MPs.

    The odds of losing the AV vote will put the lid on the LibDems' electoral reform aspirations for a generation, and when you throw in the increased odds of the SNP winning a full manadate north of the border and an independence referendum after May's election, Clegg will have been responsible for breaking up the UK as well as keeping the most rightwing Tory government in power in living memory.

    Given the shortening odds of a total meltdown of their Party, you'd think someone would step forward to try and prevent it - and if there isn't anyone, then maybe it's significant evidence that the LibDems are an irrelevance to British politics - the real debate will polarise over here as it has in the USA - the libertarian agenda of massive cuts in the state, or the progressive view of the need for a mixed economy and a strategic role for government in building the economy.

    We'll still have three party politics - Labour, Tory & UKIP.

    The centre ground of British politics will become a free fire zone, no longer the space all the main parties aim to occupy, and the LibDems are going to go down like ninepins.

  • Comment number 10.

    thanks to Clegg the UKIP party will replace them and LibDems will be history....yesssss

  • Comment number 11.

    '6. At 12:17pm on 12 Mar 2011, TheGingerF wrote:
    JunkkMale - doesnt look like Spring outside my window (in Edinburgh)!!'

    I read that yesterday after a day out in the garden in my T-shirt (granted, today, it is less clement). Geography, eh?

    Back on topic:

    Apologies. Got distracted by what the author wrote. No input on my question on that then?

  • Comment number 12.

    It's not that others seem to be of the same mind...

    GdnPolitics Guardian politics
    @andrewsparrow covering the Lib Dem's spring conference this weekend - the live blog will be here

    So, what decides?

  • Comment number 13.

    "If you supported Labour in 1997 because you wanted fairness, you wanted young people to flourish, you wanted political reform, you wanted the environment protected, or you simply believed in a better future, turn to the Liberal Democrats. We carry the torch of progress now." Nick Clegg, 23rd September 2009.

    "The Lib Dems never were and aren't a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was." Nick Clegg, 18th September 2010.

    No doubt defenders will say that Mr Clegg has been taken out of context, misinterpreted, etc. But it's the headlines which voters take notice of and not the small-print.

    In November 2010, Dr Cable made the new Lib-Dem view clear, that the small-print gives them a blank cheque, and their promises don't matter:

    ""We didn't break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn't win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it's the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I'm trying to honour,"

    So now, according to the BBC, Mr Clegg has vowed not to let the "profit motive drive a coach and horses through the NHS" - whatever that means.

    The Lib-Dem leadership will get through this weekend with a mixture of dishonesty and sophistry. But that will not save them from the impending political tsunami in May.

  • Comment number 14.

    Junkkmale - apologies for rudely ignoring your pertinent enquiry.

    Spring and Autumn - nice and neutral.

    Summer and Winter - far too emotive.

    Michael probably queried Spring because of its other meaning - and the Libs will get nothing of the sort from this conference.

    Sasha @ 13 - that must have taken a lot of research - I mean finding examples of Clegg/Cable duplicity and double meaning. Clegg I always thought would turn out to be utterly useless, its actually much worse than that. Cable - words almost fail me. Sanctimonious however does spring to mind given his personal abuse of Brown when in opposition.

    I do however feel a little sorry for your average LibDem activist.

  • Comment number 15.


    The Westminster Citadel is an Academy of Iniquity. No surprise then that it attracts our least mature individuals and elevates to high office the most pernicious of them.

    Poor Nick - his neediness (as with so many 'leaders' before him) was met by Westminster, but it was just his luck to be - not only 'king maker' - but PLEDGE BREAKER in the process. What is more it showed Cable for what he is, behind the avuncular mask (as did the seduction scene).

    In present circumstances, more than ever, the need to move to a CERTIFICATE OF VOTING COMPETENCE is demonstrated. SURELY some sage of yore has pronounced on the MYTH of the FAIRNESS of UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE? Common parlance speaks of the 'blind leading the blind' but Universal Suffrage is precursor to 'the unprincipled duping the unsophisticated'. Wisdom it isn't.

    Saint Tony's 'three priorities' have 'educated' the masses down to an unthinking, manipulable amoebic mass, to be run ragged by the Westminster weasels. There was a time when Britain fought battles to the whim of some perversely appointed Duke or other, with no aptitude; Britain now fights broad adversity, under perversely appointed Ministers of similar ineptitude. The Westminster Ethos is stuck in the past, and will preside over chaos in the future.


  • Comment number 16.


    I see Hegel was against Universal Suffrage. I gather he wanted intermediate bodies of some sort. There is a lot of 'given good' acceptance of Universal Suffrage, but then the same is true of school - which is probably the single most damaging experience in every life. School (its institutionalising miasma) might even be why we have the mess we have. I'll have to see what Hegel said about that!


  • Comment number 17.

    Barrie @16 - "VOTE CERTIFICATE OF VOTING." There are two problems with that. The first is that it would be used against the poor, who would be left with the freedom "to do as you're told" - or riot and no doubt get shot. I don't trust the ruling class of this country.

    The second objection is that many intelligent and informed people are nonetheless unwilling to apply reason and knowledge in the ballot box. A "certificate of voting competence" would do nothing to curb such irrational behaviour. My preferred way forward is to campaign and demonstrate against the tabloid press and its owners. Make them pariahs in society, and ban non citizens/non-dom tax payers from interfering in politics. The same would apply to Hollywood stars who tell us how to vote but, safe in their Beverly Hills mansions, don't have to suffer the consequences of their exhortations.

    I would also be in favour of extending the legislation which got rid of Phil Woolas. Apart from the blatent Lib-Dem broken promises, as in 1979, another Tory has obtained high office on the back of claiming "no plans to increase VAT". I would develop your idea of an OFPOL, to create a body which could require referenda and recall votes when politicians change their spots upon election to Parliament.

    In the meantime, according to Auntie Beeb, 'Nick Clegg has said the Liberal Democrats will "never lose their soul" despite the compromises of coalition.'

    I've news for you Cleggy boy - you can't lose what you've already sold!

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 19.


    Your objections are valid Sasha (and largely known to me). I am as much making the point about duped masses, as calling for the certificate. That said, as I sort of hinted, raising awareness of the masses to just how devious our politicians are, has not been tried. In reality, our culture, social structure and governance are all degraded beyond 'fitness for purpose'. Much could de done by media. I have asked BBC often, to no effect, and the demise of Spitting Image still looks engineered.

    As for taking on the media: now THAT is a task worthy of respect. I'll hold your coat. My master plan, put to Rowntree in 1995, was to 'get at' the very young (before too much damaged by 'parenting') via TV. A sort of subversive approach; hopefully not spotted by the Forces of Weasel until too late.

    But seeing just how far down the corruption-route the world has gone, with Britain in the lead, I doubt it has a wise thought in Westminster’s chance of survival.

  • Comment number 20.

    FEET OF CLAY (#17)
    (Inspired by Sasha's telling comment.)

    Nick says: "We will not lose our soul"
    But he sold HIS securing his goal!
    Now he's losing his troops
    Who don't like being dupes.
    So stop digging Nick - that a big hole!

  • Comment number 21.

    @19,20. I guessed you were playing devils advocate Barrie. :-)

    Re our gutter press - it may be a steep hill to climb, but organisations like 38 degrees have been making an issue of Murdoch's power for some time now, including having demonstrations. There will be more! I hope the discussion will be extended to other media barons.

    As for your poem - if you can't beat'em join 'em! :-D I hope Michael doesn't mind us turning his blog into "doggerel corner".

    My little contribution has been inspired by the "spring" references, which sent a tune running through my mind. The Nick and Dave show is turning into a big flop. Mel Brooks' 'Producers' would be proud!

    Springtime for Nick Clegg and Cameron.
    Winter for social advance.
    Whilst our nation despairs as it totters,
    our leaders just posture and prance.

    But I have to leave the last word to the late great Jake Thackray from his song "The Bull"

    The hero gets to the microphone, and then:

    ..."down it comes: slick, slithery pat!
    If you must put people on pedestals, wear a big hat.
    The tongue he's got is pure gold, the breast is pure brass,
    The feet are pure clay - and watch out for the 'donkey' "

    The full song is a delight. The words are freely available on the offical Jake site, and there is an extant performance by Jake on YouTube. I think it should be made compulsory to play it as the intro to all election broadcasts.

  • Comment number 22.


    I'll check the song out - thanks.

    I get regular emails from 38 degrees. I think the Murdoch business is symptomatic of the Westminster Malaise. I posted this on the other Friday thread:


    As I listened - yet again - to Jeremy Hunt righteously explaining his DILIGENCE in seeking INDEPENDENT advice over the Murdoch deal, the words 'dossier' and 'extensive, detailed and authoritative' wandered, unbidden, into my mind. I remembered how another fresh-faced, wide-eyed (with innocence and sincerity) Westminster Creature, lied to us.

    While the Westminster Citadel 'stands', we are mocked by such crass assurances. No wonder we rank the 26th DE-MOCK-CRASS-Y in the world.

    Arise England - you have nothing (left) to lose but your debt.

  • Comment number 23.

    Odd... posted and noted. But then... vanished. I'll try again (with a screen capture in case the mods or techies need help. Totally missing posts is a worrying development)...

    '14. At 1:21pm on 13 Mar 2011, TheGingerF wrote:
    Michael probably queried Spring because of its other meaning'

    Tx for that. As we are still in the vague arena of probably's, maybe the author may oblige with an actual confirmation of his meaning given the more prevalent temporal one most seem aware of and use.

    These things can matter.

    Take this:

    Palestinian 'kills five Israelis' in West Bank

    One is rather left wondering which aspect of 'killing, five, or Israelis' warranted the quotes.

    Was it (taken from a quick google) ...

    1.1 Quotations and speech - No
    1.2 Irony - Surely not
    1.3 Signaling unusual usage - Hard to rationalise in context
    1.4 Use–mention distinction - Given the other possibilities, unlikely
    1.5 Titles of artistic works - No, unless some have really lost the plot
    1.6 Nicknames and false titles - No


    1.7 Incorrect usage

    And, if so, simply ignorance... or an abuse of editorial to reflect the author's mindset in 'enhancing the narrative' over simply reporting.

    It seems to happen a lot. In places.

  • Comment number 24.

    Did anyone notice the subtle change of language taking place? I am sure Nick Clegg hopes nobody did.

    The question facing us is not whether to cut the deficit. It is how and when. (Nick Clegg, Keynote Speech, LibDem Spring Conference, 2010)

    When it comes to the deficit, the real question is not when, or if. The real question is how. (Nick Clegg, Keynote Speech, LibDem Spring Conference, 2011)

    You can read more on LibDems: A Torysvesite Party

  • Comment number 25.

    the interview on the Politics show by Jon Sopel with Chris Huhne was the most boring eight minutes which seemed like a century ever in the history of television, Sopel tried to ask a question and because Huhne is an 'on the ropes' politician he gave long tedius answers bordering on the manic and sleep inducing. This is a well worn technique first used by Paddy Ashdown who patented it, all you have to do is give a long rambling response and if possible drown out any supplementary questions fired at you thereby giving the impression that you answering in a calm, rational and succinct way when you are in fact boring the pants off anyone still bothering to watch as Sopel found out after an eternity...along with the rest of us....

  • Comment number 26.

    @24 I read the link Alex. Very funny - and with more than a grain of truth! :-)

  • Comment number 27.

    I had thought the Lib Dems had passed the point of no return after the tuition fees row and then Barnsley. I was wrong. The party's decision to oppose NHS reform could just catch the public mood. The problem is that Lib Dem ministers may not carry this opposition into Whitehall. This really is Clegg's big test. Is he willing to set aside his own short term ambitions to bring the coalition to the brink over the issue. Not much room for compromise on the issue I think. My guess - he will bottle it.

  • Comment number 28.


    Now BMA agrees with LibDem conference - surely the least we can expect is for Clegg to man up on this one. However I suspect I need to recalibrate my very very low expectations of Clegg and start to dig.

  • Comment number 29.

    Clegg was ALWAYS a Tory...only the LibDems never knew...Charlie Kenneddy did though, that's why he stays stchum....



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