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The Coalition on trial

Submitted by on 27 Sep 2010 – 10:01

By Jon Craig, Chief Political Correspondent, Sky News

The first party conferences after a general election are a time for celebration, re-grouping and – for the losers – inquests and recriminations.

This year is a little different, however, because in the 2010 general election there was no outright winner and David Cameron had to settle for second best, a coalition with Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats.

So after four months of compromises, a shock Cabinet resignation, the inevitable tension between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives and a few bungles and gaffes along the way, at the three party conferences this autumn the coalition is on trial.

At the LibDems, Nick Clegg has to convince his pesky and increasingly mutinous activists that the party’s slump in the opinion polls since May doesn’t point to a near wipe-out in elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and English town halls next May and later at the next general election.

Labour, after unveiling their new leader on day one of their conference, have to try to work out an effective strategy for opposing the Coalition and looking like a credible alternative government. And they’ll only do that if they can work out why they lost.

And the Conservatives, with plenty of potential for mutiny in their ranks too, would be wise to learn how to cope with life in a coalition rather than get bogged down in an acrimonious row about what might have been if the “Big Society” message hadn’t been so woolly and unconvincing.

For the LibDems, it’s a first visit to Liverpool and the shiny new conference centre next to Albert Dock alongside the River Mersey.

With many of his party activists – and a few of his MPs – in a truculent mood, Nick Clegg’s probably glad he won’t be there all week. He’s jetting of midweek to New York, deputising at a big international summit for David Cameron during his paternity leave.

Before he escapes, the Deputy Prime Minister’s message to his party about the Coalition will be something like this: “I’m proud of our achievements so far. From civil liberties to political reform. To steps to reshaping our public services. And of course, our first Budget, which set out our plans to repair the public services.”

That’s exactly what he said at the beginning of his social mobility speech on the day the Coalition Government was 100 days old. All very well. But to Mr Clegg’s obvious annoyance, during the question and answer session after his speech Tony Vickers, a LibDem councillor from Newbury, West Berkshire, got up and confronted him about the Coalition, claiming the Liberal Democrats are being trampled all over by the Tories.

Immediately after the meeting ended and Nick Clegg was whisked away in his shiny silver Jaguar – when there’s real social mobility we’ll all drive a Jag – I interviewed the mild-mannered Councillor Vickers, who was reasoned and articulate. He said the Coalition Agreement should be reviewed annually, a call I suspect we will hear a lot in Liverpool.

Simon Hughes, new LibDem deputy leader and the darling of the party’s activists, wants a veto on changes to the Coaltion Agreement. We’ll hear a lot more of that, too.

Labour’s big problem this autumn is that they can’t agree on why they lost in May. George Osborne was right when he said in a speech at Bloombergs in the City of London in the summer that Labour is split between the “defricit deniers” and those who recognise the problem but don’t have a plan to deal with it.
In an uncanny coincidence – or, I suspect, perhaps not – Alistair Darling admitted as much in a speech in Edinburgh on the same day, when he said Labour lost because they failed to persuade the country they had a plan for the future. “We rather lost our way,” he said. “Rather than recognising that the public were rightly concerned about the level of borrowing, we got sidetracked into a debate about investment over cuts.”
Wise words. The grumblers at Labour’s conference in Manchester would do well to heed that advice, from someone who is about to step down from the front bench after 13 years continuous service in Cabinet and who will now surely become a respected elder statesman and grandee on the back benches.
In the Conservative Party, senior ministers spent the summer discussing how to present the Coalition to their sceptical activists. The answer is likely to be some Tory ministers attending the LibDem conference and vice versa. But not speaking to the full conference from the platform in the main hall, but at fringe meetings.
As one senior Tory minister who works closely with a LibDem in his department explained to me rather colourfully: “You don’t take your girlfriend to your parents’ home for the first time and sleep in the same bed with her. You put her in the spare room.”
Nicely put. But as well as legitimate worries among many Conservatives about the wisdom of David Cameron agreeing to an AV referendum, there will also be foaming at the mouth at the Tory fringes from what used to be called the “swivel-eyed brigade”, the hardline Euro-sceptic malcontents and Right-wing head bangers.
“We lost because we weren’t radical enough!” is the nonsense you hear from nutters in all political parties after a general election. Actually, the opposite is usually true.
I’m a big fan of party conferences. I’ve always said that that for political journalists the general election is our World Cup and the conferences are our FA Cup Final or Champions League.
Well, this year the World Cup was a disappointment for all of us. The general election outcome was a disappointment for many in all three political parties.
So here’s to the new season. The party conference season, that is.