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Those innocent days BC – before the coalition – seem a distant memory for Liberal Democrats, meeting in conditions of intense security in Birmingham.
Back in 2009 one could virtually walk in off the street. The most interesting attendee at that conference in Bournemouth was Gilbert the bottlenose whale, who sadly died on the beach as he attempted to crash a debate on waste recyling.
This time round, business leaders mingle with lobbyists, protected by a ring of steel from the stilletoed and tattooed throngs heading for a night out on Broad Street. Tables at the business gala dinner go for as much as £5,000 a pop.
This new focus on security has come as a bit of a shock for conference goers, one of whom received a surprise visit from the West Midlands police in the middle of the night after an apparent cultural misunderstanding about conference life.
It goes like this. People attending party conferences go out for dinner, then return to the conference hotel where they stand in a sweaty room drinking warm white wine at a reception with other people who prefer not to pay for their drinks.
Then at about 3.30am they realise it’s time to go to bed, but they have left something in the conference centre: typically a hotel key or a computer. Having retrieved the said object they stagger into bed. So far, so normal. But not apparently to the police.
“I got a knock on my hotel room door at 4.30am – there were four policemen outside,” says Notebook’s bleary-eyed informant. “They started searching my room and asking why I had gone back to the conference centre in the middle of the night.”
After intensive questioning, the constabulary were about to leave, but then spotted a suspicious item in the room. “Is that a crack pipe?” demanded one officer. “No it’s a kazoo,” says the conference-goer. That – at least – could only happen at a Lib Dem conference.
Ghost of SDP
There is a much more managerial air at Lib Dem conference nowadays, a mood often attributed to the party’s newfound re-acquaintance with power. But some trace the cultural change all the way back to 1988 and the awkward merger that formed the party.
That was when the woolly-jumpered Liberals joined forces with the technocratic Social Democratic Party, headed by the deliciously imperious Dr David Owen. Most of the old SDP gang swallowed their misgivings and joined the new Liberal Democrats.
But by no means all. Greg Clark, the Tory planning minister, certainly felt at home at a conference fringe meeting in Birmingham this week. As a former disciple of Dr Death, Mr Clark recognised a fair number of former SDP colleagues in the throng.
Clark says that Michael Gove, education secretary, recently staged a quiz and asked which Tory frontbenchers used to be in the SDP. He was surprised to learn that there were far more than he suspected.
Clark says they include Andrew Lansley, health secretary, Chris Grayling, employment minister, and David Mundell, Scottish Office minister. He thinks there may be more with old posters of Shirley Williams hidden away in the attic.
Meanwhile the Lib Dem frontbench naturally includes a number of those on the long march from the SDP including Chris Huhne, energy secretary, and Vince Cable, business secretary. This common SDP heritage is a largely unwritten aspect of the coalition story.
“There was a fairly strong managerial streak in the SDP,” says Lady Williams, now fighting a doughty battle against health reforms on the Lib Dem benches in the Lords. “Our former members rise to the top in every party.”
Before the creation of the coalition in 2010, the last Liberal in the cabinet was Archibald Sinclair, Churchill’s wartime air minister. The party was clearly in familiar territory therefore when the RAF was ordered into Libya.
Nick Clegg’s party reassured itself that the mission was entirely in order because it enjoyed the blessing of the United Nations. But Notebook learns that coalition consensus over Libya was stretched to breaking point by David Cameron.
“We had millions of pounds of Libyan banknotes – printed by De La Rue – sitting in boxes in Kent and Cameron was desperate to get them to the rebels,” confides one minister.
“The Attorney General had to sit him down and explain to him in words of one syllable that it was strictly against the UN resolution.”
Downing St confirms that Mr Cameron’s frustration came close to boiling point but he finally relented, much to the relief of the Lib Dems. But at least the episode confirms Cameron’s enthusiasm for quantitative easing: not so much Helicopter Ben as Helicopter Dave.
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