Going through the motions? Far from it

Strange question to ask at a Lib Dem conference, but do votes count?

I am not talking about AV or STV or FPTP, but about those votes at the conference on policy motions. As the leadership steels itself for votes and possible defeat on free schools and the less controversial issues of Trident and gay marriage, will any of these votes affect the part of the party in government?

On canvassing opinion, a surprising response – a special adviser thought "yes", the votes were important, in contrast to a typical regular rebel who thought "no", it would make no difference. But what will it mean if tomorrow conference votes for the Lib Dems to discourage free schools from opening? My overwhelming and pragmatic view is, why bother? This is never going happen. Setting up a school is a huge undertaking and if there were betting odds on how many will actually happen by 2015, the numbers would be too small to worry about.

The second is that this flexing of muscle will in the end be a strength, not a weakness. Take the example of the "triple-lock" process at the time of the coalition negotiations. I confess that I was critical of it, but proved wrong. The democratic process that tied in the negotiating team to the Federal Executive, Parliamentary Party and ultimately the party as a whole gave them greater power to negotiate, unlike the other parties.

So Roy Jenkins was wrong when he predicted that something like this would "twuss up our leader like a chicken" (please read in appropriate Jenkins style). Instead, it gave Clegg a stronger policy platform.

So Nick Clegg said in his Q&A today that he would make no attempt to gag internal debate; instead, he sees it as part of the democratic process for building a future policy platform. These were not warm words for the party. He is ready for those votes and will not be attempting to change the debate.

I think most conference delegates get that. What the media, Conservative backbenchers and the wider public make of it is another matter.

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.