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Sheffield standoff - Lib Dems face the music at spring conference

Len Tingle | 16:31 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg ponders the future for the LibDems

What a difference a year makes.

In Sheffield this week Liberal Democrats will have to make their way through street protestors; deep ranks of police and a six foot high steel security fence to get into their spring conference at the City Hall.

Twelve months ago, for the same event, I strolled through the quiet streets of Birmingham and slipped quietly into the city's International Convention Centre after a cursory security check from the equivalent of the laughing policeman.

In Birmingham I was slotted in to record an interview with Nick Clegg with ease.

In Sheffield requests, in writing, are being considered.

A year ago Liberal Democrats would expect to be in with a shout of winning any Parliamentary by-election.

But then the party could count on the those fed up with Government and looking for an alternative party to give their "protest" vote.

As a party of government Liberal Democrats are rapidly finding that by-elections are a different ball game.

In January Labour surged ahead in Oldham East and Saddleworth.

Last week, Barnsley Central saw the Liberal Democrats humiliated. The party received fewer votes then an unemployed local miner who stood as an independent.

The Lib Dem candidate finished in 6th place and went home without his deposit.

So where is the "I agree with Nick" surge that boosted the party in the days before the General Election?

Nick Clegg's adept handling of the other party leaders in the televised debates made his face recognisable to millions across the country.

But it was a face that made not a single appearance throughout the entire Barnsley Central election campaign.

In fact it did not appear on any of the party literature I saw being handed out in the street either.

It did appear somewhere. It was in the middle of a rather cheeky Labour spoof "wanted" poster.

Spoof wanted poster published by Labour during the Barnsley Central By-Election featuring Nick Clegg and David Cameron

Spoof poster published by Labour

David Cameron featured on the same poster as he did not turn up to support the Conservative candidate either.

Yet as Nick Clegg's personal popularity has dimmed the party itself has hardly fallen to bits.

On the whole Liberal Democrats 57 MPs have followed his unwavering support for the speed and depth of the Conservative-led reductions in public spending.

But cracks have appeared.

The biggest opposition came over his U-turn on an election promise not to increase student tuition fees.

Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland, together with 20 others from his party, trooped into the opposition lobby. A further eight abstained.

David Ward, the new Bradford East MP, has consistently joined a small group of Liberal Democrats voting against Coalition plans to turn more state schools into independently managed Academies.

But the internal opposition seems to be on an issue-by-issue basis rather than the start of a leadership coup.

David Ward told me on an edition of the Politics Show for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in January that despite his voting record he still firmly "agrees with Nick".

The problem is that the public opinion polls seem to show that many tens of thousands of ordinary voters now have a different view of the Liberal Democrats and the party leader from just 10 months ago at the General Election.

So far that has led to relatively little damage.

The party's poor by-election performance has been in traditional Labour seats.

Just a few weeks after the conference the Local Government elections will see Liberal Democrat administrations in Sheffield, Hull and York put under severe pressure.

Few expect all three of these major Yorkshire councils to be in Liberal Democrat hands after the polls in May.


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