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15 September 2008

Lembit for president…

An upbeat Lembit Opik reports how his fellow Lib Dems are in a mood of irrepressible confidence sure

By Lembit Opik

The most striking thing about Lib Dem Party conference is that everybody seems irrepressibly confident that, sooner of later, we’re going to be in government. It’s just a sort of assumption that’s made. And it explains why everybody takes every single debate and fringe so very seriously. Even in the bar on the first evening, people were in huddles discussing the merits of changing the voting system or reforming income tax.

To the casual onlooker, political talk in pubs may sound like quite a weird way to spend a Friday night. But it’s actually rather addictive. I found myself in a detailed debate about the merits of increasing council housing instead of Housing Association developments. I don’t NORMALLY have that kind of conversation in the Elephant & Castle back home. But here, it becomes the norm. In a sense, that’s probably what we all come to conference FOR – to be able to indulge our political obsessions without being sent to the funny farm by well-meaning friends.

I’ve the impression people have very high expectations of the next few days here in Bournemouth – and of Nick Clegg. They evidently expect him to perform some kind of miracle in his speech on Wednesday, and he knows it. I reckon he’s pretty good on the set pieces like that. It certainly went well for him in the Spring Conference. Given the almost vapid obsession which the media now has with leaders’ speeches, I’m sure Team Clegg are going to be putting a lot into that.

I’ve got a project of my own at this conference: the presidency. That’s the job which makes the internal Party machine tick. It’s different to the leader, who directs policy and political strategy – the president makes sure the Lib Dems stay ship shape so they won’t sink under the stresses of major campaigns and challenges.

I’ve been hankering after that role for eight years now. Simon Hughes beat me in 2004, but this time I’m hoping to win. So far, the campaign has been very good natured. The other candidate and I get on well and I think it’ll probably stay that way. She’s got metal badges, I’ve got stickers.

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Hmm, it makes me wonder if I should get metal badges too. These sort of dilemmas seem perfectly normal at conference. I doubt the British public feels strongly about it though. My slogan, “ipik Öpik” was mis-heard by a journalist who reported it as “Epic Opik.” I’ve never thought of myself as Epic before, makes me sound like a sequel to Ben Hur or something.

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Looking ahead, there’s the usual mass of policy debates on just about everything under the sun. I tend to feel we overdo the detail in our policy work – the primary colours of our positioning risk getting lost in the small print. But it does tend to be the Lib Dem way. When I’m president…