Fidgety first act waits for drama to unfold

Image of Matthew Engel

For the first time in the memory of almost everyone present, a cabinet minister from Britain’s third party formally addressed its conference.

What a moment in the tortured history of Liberal Britain! After thousands of twilights and a hundred false dawns, the chief secretary to the Treasury rose to address the Lib Dems and make an official government policy announcement – just as happens in the grown-up parties.

Were we uplifted? Were we excited? Up to a point.

There was a notice on the door of the hall warning: “Special effects will be in use throughout this session – including loud noises, explosions and flashing lights.” That sounded exciting. But the sign must have been a leftover from Nick Clegg’s Saturday night pep rally.

Danny Alexander, living up to the downbeat reputation of the chief secretary’s job, spoke in a very curious fashion. It hardly seemed to be oratory at all; it was as though he were giving an economics tutorial to the front row. He wasn’t inaudible, he wasn’t mumbling – indeed, the effect was rather charming. But he wasn’t projecting either. Perhaps he was just a little more uncertain about the contents of his speech than the script was meant to suggest.

And that may be the motif of this extraordinary conference. It could be the first act of a Tennessee Williams play. We are at a reunion in a family homestead in the deep south and everyone is getting on MAADY FAAN. But the air is getting heavier, the heat more intense and there is distant thunder. After the interval, the shouting will start, and we will find out who hates whom, who is alcoholic, who is gay and who is philandering.

This is not an exact analogy. For a start, we were in Liverpool and it was just cool and damp. Second, these are the Lib Dems and we have already had plenty of the above revelations.

But you get my drift? Sometime between now and the next election the suppressed tensions in this party are bound to explode. It doesn’t look like happening this week, probably not even next year. But the explosion will come, complete with loud noises and flashing lights.

There were a few rumbles from party members on Sunday, but nothing life threatening. Mr Alexander threw them a bone about tax avoidance, letting them know the rich will suffer too (provided their accountants are less smart than the government).

This seemed to be applauded by about half the population of a half-full hall. Most of his lines – eg, “I didn’t come into politics to cut public spending. But it has to be done” – were received more coolly. Yet at the end he got a standing ovation. There is a logic to this. The Lib Dems like the idea of being in government and applaud that. They just don’t like the reality of it much.

Later, Nick Clegg, tieless in honour of the sabbath, did a Q&A session in the hall. There must have been some planted questions because he was miraculously able to announce extra aid to Pakistan flood victims on the spot. But on the whole he was brilliant.

Gordon Brown did these sessions at Labour conferences but took the questions in groups of three, with no hope of a supplementary, so he could avoid direct dialogue with the riff-raff. Mr Clegg does it properly, one question at the time with eye contact, and this was the lucid and engaging figure we saw in the first television debate.

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