The daffodils are blooming, the sun is shining and the floods are receding – which can only mean one thing. It’s Lib Dem Spring Conference. This may come to a surprise to many, as unlike in previous years, where the rows have been heavily trailed and keenly anticipated, this time all seems sweetness and light. Sure, there’ll be debates and differences of opinion – but no one’s going to be resigning over motions on the best way to fight food poverty. And with the party set to take positive positions supporting immigration and Europe, why, it feels just like old times.
After some difficult conference moments for the leadership in recent times – for example, it’s exactly a year ago since Jo Shaw quit the party on stage over the Secret Courts debacle - the party looks to be at peace with itself.
Sadly, I fear this is not the case. Scratch the surface, and you find a party that’s tense, nervous about the future, especially worried about the European elections, and constantly looking out for trouble. Witness the reaction to Thomas Byrne's article last week (which named Alistair Carmichael as a potential leader) and especially a quote from someone in the party attacking the left. Over on Lib Dem Voice, that got the hairdryer treatment.
"Apparently, a member of party staff has been mean about Tim and referred to those many party activists who have a lot of time for him as 'sandal wearers.' I can’t honestly think of anyone actually working on proper election campaigns who would ever say such an insulting or dismissive thing. They know that they need every activist motivated and out there, telling the Liberal Democrat story, if we are going to have a hope in hell of achieving our goals this year and next. They would never insult members of the party who, by and large, have kept on working patiently on the ground"
Indeed, almost everything right now is analysed through the prism of "what it means about the leadership". Witness the announcement of the negotiating team for potential future coalition talks. Immediately it has been examined for every conceivable signal. It’s a sign of strength that Nick has appointed a team without reference to the wider party. Or else it’s a sign of weakness that Nick has not been brave enough to submit his choices for debate amongst the party at large. And why is the chosen line-up dominated by the left? Or indeed the right? And why now? Is it a distraction technique – get everyone in the party thinking about the general election to stop them thinking about the European elections? The debate seems endless.
The party is going to look confident, assured, positive and passionate on stage this week. But increasingly the debate behind the scenes that will dominate the bar conversation is around one question: after this May’s elections - what happens next?
Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference