Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Beneath the surface, tensions are growing in the Lib Dems

Everything right now is analysed through the prism of "what it means about the leadership".

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

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.