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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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era