A senior Lib Dem adviser told me last week that internal polling indicates very clearly that the electorate attributes the cut in the top rate of tax to the Tories and the rise in the income tax threshold to the Lib Dems. Thus this year's conference slogan - "Fairer tax in tough times" - was born. And you can see this differentiation strategy in action now, everywhere you look. For example, when Nick says - "I will not accept a new wave of fiscal retrenchment, of belt tightening, without asking people at the top to make an additional contribution"- there’s a very clear indication that George Osborne will only get his welfare cuts – his Tory welfare cuts – if there’s a suitable quid pro quo.
This is all well and good, so long as the message is a consistent one. You can have your evil nasty policy, but only if give me something exceptionally nice in return. However, I detect that certain parts of the party have moved on already. Vince, for example. "We’ve used the phrase not a penny more, not a penny less," he says. "I’m implementing spending cuts and it’s very tough. We are not agreeing anything over and above the cuts that have already been agreed in the spending review."
Not a huge amount of wriggle room there. Not much of a quid pro quo on the horizon. One wonders what, if anything, Vince will say in his speech. Has he had the messaging strategy "clarified"?
For someone like me, who’s spent two years telling party folk that the electorate are quite capable of differentiating between a Lib Dem policy and a Tory one, and that the "not a cigarette paper between us" strategy was disastrous, this is all good news. And indeed, suddenly, everywhere you look, differentiation is writ large . But are we doing deals with the Tories – or just saying no? I can feel a row brewing.
Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common , which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Liberal Democrat Conference.