Assessing the mood of the Liberal Democrats
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.