Disagreements and debates abound at the Lib Dem conference

The leadership no longer have an iron grip over proceedings at conference – and it’s better for it.

Thinking back over the last five years of party conferences, it is striking that this has been the least managed of them all. Party managers have not done the usual work behind the scenes to ensure that the leadership view prevails.

The leadership learned the bitter lesson of defeat when Norman Lamb lost a vote at conference on privatisation of the Royal Mail in September 2005. From that moment on, there was a determined effort to manage the controversial moments.

Leaflets to delegates, ensuring the right speakers are lined up, gentle persuasion in the bars in the evenings, plenty of phone calls – these things had become part of the process of managing conference in the preceding weeks. But in Liverpool, very little activity of this sort has taken place.

Why is that? One reason is that, as a result of the coalition, it has become more acceptable to disagree. There are reconciliation processes, designed by Labour and the Lib Dems in Scotland, where conflicts in policy are brought to a committee and resolved. Of course there are limits, but open disagreement no longer feels like the threat it used to.

Another reason is that, like a pressure cooker, this conference had to let off some steam. On future strategy, on free schools and on Trident, there was a clear need for the party to assert itself. Vince Cable in his speech today said that he expects conference to keep him and his colleagues "honest".

A final reason is that a democratic process has the potential to strengthen, not weaken the Lib Dems who are in government. Because decision-making is open and democratic, the ministers in government know that behind them are some powerful policy agreements and the full agreement (or sometimes disagreement) of a political party.

The question I have is: post-CSR, what will happen next year? Will less still be more? Or will the party managers be back in action?

Olly Grender is a political consultant. She was director of communications for the Liberal Democrats between 1990 and 1995.

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.