Grim times at the Liberal Democrat conference

Posted by Alexander Hay

Absurdity and denial at the conference where a lot is said, but very little will ever truly be done. Meanwhile, Nick Clegg has gained a rival and Chris Huhne tries desperately to still look relevant

Chris Huhne - coming to a Crown Court/Electoral Meltdown near you soon!Philosophers ponder many great questions, such as: Why are we alive? Why do good men suffer and evil men prosper? How do you describe the colour orange to a dog? And the most pressing question of all - what is the purpose of the Liberal Democrat Party?

Those looking for the answer at this week's party conference in Birmingham may be disappointed, not because they don't find the answer but find themselves realising there wasn't one in the first place. It is a shell of a party, despised and reviled for selling themselves into a Conservative coalition, humiliated by the failure of this year's AV vote and generally lumbered with the one thing all politicians fear - being even less trusted than usual.

They are trying though. Chis Huhne's condemnation of the Tory lust for tax cuts and the rise of 'Tea Party Tories' must have been effective dog whistles for the assembled party faithful, but they'd applaud anything these days. In truth, there is little Huhne's party can do because they are the junior partners in a government obsessed with tax cuts. Like all bad marriages, it survives because the weaker one has nowhere to go and the stronger one needs someone to clean out the cat litter tray.

Similarly, Huhne's call to 'get tough' on energy prices had the same sabre rattling irrelevance; reminiscent of previous years when the Lib Dems were the third party and had even less influence.

The utility companies know they can carry on fleecing the public because they're silly enough to let it happen, and the parts of the government that matter are only too willing to let this keep happening. All Huhne had to offer were mere words.

The game is, in any case, up for Huhne. With the threat of criminal action hanging over his head and both his wife and his mistress turning up at the conference, it's likely that his days of commanding the podium may soon be over.

Meanwhile, his leader, Nick Clegg, had an even tougher job, trying to provide leadership he was never able to provide in the first place. His speech betrayed him. Apart from admitting that the party's long-term policy of joining the Euro was wrong (as in, 'Greece going bankrupt' wrong), he still claimed that there would be 'light at the end of the tunnel' for the UK economy, which usually means you've died. Naturally, the speech was somewhat undermined yesterday by Business Secretary Vince Cable predicting nothing but utter doom and Japanese-style lost decades. They can't even agree with each other.

The only dramatic development was the apparent rise of Cumbrian MP and Lib Dem President Tim Farron, whose (relatively) barnstorming speech got the activists riled up, but was definitely, absolutely, positively not a bid for leadership. Heavens, no. Rather than pushing Clegg out now, however, Farron seems to be preparing for 2015, when the next General Election comes along and what will presumably be a burnt out husk of a party will be his for the taking.

For the most part, though, this was an irrelevant party obsessing over trivia while its senior members enjoyed being in government for however long it will last. The Coalition will endure to the bitter end simply because the Lib Dems know they now have little hope of ever being trusted by the electorate again. All this after that brief moment, 18 months ago, when the party was actually ahead in the polls... They will never know such success again.

A call by delegates to ban Page 3 was a case in point. This was the sort of distraction Labour engaged in when it was losing elections. And if the delegates thought they had any power at all, such notions were disabused when a motion attacking NHS 'reform' was defeated on the floor.

But for now, many Lib Dem activists still think the party is a slightly potty but well-meaning Old Labour parish council, but it's more like an inept clique of Thatcherites leading a party of gauche soft lefties head-first into the Second Death of Liberalism, from which there may no further hope of return.

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Alexander Hay

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