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18 September 2008

Booing Lembit

The new nasty party or the party of making it happen? Paul Evans gives his assessment of the annual

By Paul Evans

Ah, Liberal Democrat conference. Hacks and lobbyists sneer at the lax security, but liberals cherish it. Half-hearted bag checks are all they need – though even the cursory glance that confirms they’re not armed leaves them a little affronted. Security staff broke sweat only to prevent Torbay MP Adrian Sanders from further assaulting former party press chief Mark Littlewood, whose think tank Liberal Vision had predicted that Sanders will lose his seat.

Whether this determination not to trade security for liberty will continue when the party marches into government, as Nick Clegg insists, remains to be seen.

Away from the main conference centre, this year’s fringe was as colourful an affair as ever. Organisations ranging from the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders to the National Autistic Society explored the issues of the day. As usual, free food proved as big a draw as top speakers.

Understandably, none was on offer at the Liberal Democrat Muslim Forum’s fringe on Sharia law. Nasser Butt, a former candidate for Mole Valley complained that there was a great deal of media misinformation on the subject and that it was necessary to “clear the air”. Is Islamic arbitration Sharia? Can we reconcile different interpretations of the law? Do British Muslims want Sharia? Attendees left more puzzled by the subject than when they arrived.

Meanwhile, an event promoting the rights of former Gurkha soldiers to full pensions and British citizenship rivaled the popularity of the NUT’s traditional fish and chips, by offering delegates a curry lunch. Thrifty Lib Dems lapped it up, mindful of the soaring cost of grub.

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Yet the party faithful had jitters, and not just because of their excessive jalfrezi consumption. Naomi Smith, Vice President of Liberal Youth, reckoned that conference had begun in nervous mood, saying: “I think the week started with a lot of apprehension that we were shifting to the right as a party.” But the omniscient Cable calmed the delegates. “Vince’s speech really reassured us that our policy agenda is now very much one of redistribution,” commented a contented Smith.

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Though warming to the Lib Dem’s new policy direction, tensions bubbled to the surface on the party’s final evening in Bournemouth. Glee Club is traditionally the time when spirits are raised, and songs such as fiscal reform classic ‘The Land’ are enjoyed by all. This year though, Lembit Opik’s traditional harmonica bit was greeted by a chorus of boos from a section of the crowd – who began to chant “I’m for Ros!” – in reference to the Montgomryshire MP’s rival for the post of party president, Baroness Scott. The incident upset gentler activists, one complaining: “it was a hostile vibe. If you’re going to be that nasty you should join the Labour party”.

But Opik was unfazed and still buoyed by having been declared “most liberal Lib Dem” by Liberal Vision, he worked the bar afterwards dolling out hastily printed Ipik Opik badges. Rumours circulated about further competitors in the race of the presidency. Chandila Fernando, brother of former contender for mayoral candidature Chamali, was touted as a potential entrant, despite having initially declared for Ros. Popular Hornsey and Wood Green MP Lynne Featherstone was also thought to be weighing up a possible candidature.

Smiles were restored the next morning, as Nick Clegg delivered his closing speech.

“Grown in stature” and “comfortable in himself,” the party grandees murmured. And they were not wrong – Clegg’s speech was delivered with an ease and confidence that belies the party’s disappointing 12 per cent MORI rating.

Brown’s government was a zombified “cross between ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’,” he quipped before pounding home the progressive argument for tax cuts – and his dream of an economy rejuvenated by an ecologically sound army of “green collar workers”. Can he, to coin the party’s current mantra, “make it happen”? The party left Bournemouth seeming increasingly enthused, but polling suggests that the public at large need more persuasion.