BBC News

Five things from the Lib Dem conference

By Justin Parkinson
Political reporter, BBC News, at Lib Dem conference

image copyrightPA Media

With Parliament prorogued and the focus of the political world on Brexit controversies, the Liberal Democrats have been enjoying a week by the seaside.

So what have we learned from this year's conference?

1) The Lib Dems really hate Brexit

Stand back Che Guevara, Samuel L Jackson and Frank Spencer, there's a new iconic beret on the scene. Maggie Turner, from Bath, says she's been doing a great trade in home-designed, EU-themed headgear at this year's Lib Dem conference.

The prototype yellow-on-blue beret, affording shade from the late-summer sunshine outside the Bournemouth International Centre (BIC), was fashioned from dishcloths. So far, Maggie says, 8,000 of the more conventional felt version have been sold, including "several" to delegates.

It's no surprise, of course, but the strength of anti-Brexit feeling at the normally rather restrained party get-together is noticeable this year.

In her speech, leader Jo Swinson said leaving the EU without a deal would put "lives at risk" and described Boris Johnson's actions as "sickening".

When she had another dig at the PM, whom she blamed for the ongoing impasse, the activists stamped on the floor in support.

A slogan involving a swearword and the "B-word" has been widely displayed here too.

They also voted on Monday to cancel Brexit in the event of a Lib Dem government.

But not every Lib Dem is in favour of the party's new policy to revoke Article 50 if the Lib Dems win the next general election.

MP Sir Norman Lamb has warned that this amounts to "playing with fire", potentially alienating the 52% of voters who backed Leave in the 2016 referendum.

2) Sam's on board

image captionWho's next to join Sam and Jo's gang?

There were hints before the conference began that another MP would move over to the Lib Dems, following Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna, Phillip Lee et al. But who?

We found out on Saturday, when Ex-Tory Sam Gyimah took to the stage with Ms Swinson, wearing glasses, a smile and... a blue jumper. His new party's yellow/gold signature hue would have merged with the background to the main stage at the BIC.

"There just aren't enough Conservatives like me," he said, as he explained the reason for his sacking from that party - over his stance on Brexit - and his subsequent move.

That leaves the Lib Dems with 18 MPs. Rumours circulated that Ms Swinson was going to unveil another convert during her speech - but she didn't. More to follow?

3) Hopes are high

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionChuka Umunna predicts an electoral breakthrough for his new party

Back in 1981, Liberal leader David Steel famously told activists at a rally to celebrate allying with the newly formed SDP: "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government."

It proved, shall we say, a little wide of the mark, with Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives winning a landslide at the next election. Liberal and Lib Dem leaders since have been more circumspect in their predictions, even during the "Cleggmania" of 2010, when the party briefly led in some opinion polls.

But the leadership thinks its firm pro-Remain stance can win seats at the general election that most pundits predict will take place later this year. New recruit Chuka Umunna puts the number at 200.

Until now the Lib Dems, who tend to focus resources on specific winnable seats, have been talking about the possibility of a few dozen gains.

A senior party source told the BBC Ms Swinson had to "rise to the occasion" as she gave her first conference speech as leader, and her overall message was unambiguous.

"Let me be clear," she said. "There is no limit to my ambition for our party. And today I am standing here as your candidate for prime minister."

Not as direct as Mr Steel, but a sign of growing ambition?

4) Paddy Ashdown tributes

Lord Ashdown - Lib Dem leader from 1988 to 1999 - used to enjoy mixing with members during conference evenings, over a drink and a cigarette. But the larger-than-life former Royal Marine and diplomat died last December.

Elizabeth Jewkes, vice-chair of the Lib Dem Women's Group, has been displaying this bottle of specially brewed Ashdown's Ale - dating back to 1997 - on her stall in the conference centre.

"We really miss him," she says. "He could take the mick out of himself and he was so funny. And he was absolutely gorgeous."

Tributes were paid in the main hall, with former rival Tony Blair praising, via video, Lord Ashdown's dignity and decency. Ms Jewkes is hoping to raffle off the beer bottle in the near future.

5) And the battle of the mugs winner is...

Every year crowds of Lib Dems mill around the stall selling party-associated paraphernalia. And the question is always the same: which MP's face shifted the most mugs (costing £8 each)?

Well, it wasn't Carshalton and Wallington's Tom Brake (pictured above). A member of staff tells the BBC that leader Jo Swinson has outsold all rivals. In fact, the 30 mugs bearing her image went by Saturday afternoon.

Others had only 20 mugs printed in their honour. Most have gone, but, from a quick tally, five showing Alistair Carmichael, long-serving MP for Orkney and Shetland, remain on sale - the most.

Unfortunately we can't gauge the popularity of the party's new recruits - including Mr Gyimah, Mr Umunna and Ms Berger - as their official photos weren't done in time to become immortalised on dishwashable china drinking vessels.

They're expected to be ready for next year's conference, in York.

Related Topics

  • Liberal Democrats