The atmosphere of the conference was fascinating – most definitely not triumphalist, but sober and determined. There was a general view that we are heading for a period of unpopularity, but that we are doing the right thing in constructing a government.
Having paid attention to about 70% of the speeches, I am still of the view there was no earthly reason to have the deliberations in secret.
There was a general air of surprise at just how much the negotiating team had gained in policy commitment from the Tories, but combined with a strong undertow of distrust of many of the Tory figures in the government. Successive Lib Dem ministers promised they would make the Tories stick to their commitments.
I an increasingly of the view that in the negotiations the Lib Dems, being natural policy wonks, were concentrated on getting policies on paper, whereas the Tories were pragmatically unconcerned about what was on paper, but rather determined to get their people with their hands on all the main levers of power. There is a danger that Lib Dem ministers will be disconnected gears.
The conference passed a whole series of amendments reaffirming the Lib Dem commitment to policies including eventual abolition of tuition fees – and no increases – and PR. All the biggest cheers came for attacks on New Labour’s appalling civil liberties record. Simon Hughes made the best speech of the day.
The coaliton agreement was passed overhelmingly – I would estimate by about 1,000 to about 30. I voted for it, and was much comforted in that by the fact that old friends like Tony Greaves, Richard Moore, Alistair Carmichael and David Grace did so too.
Meeting old friends was the best bit of the day. It was great to talk with Richard Moore again – he was a key influence on the teenage Craig Murray, and his passion for human rights and democracy in the developing world has not been dimmed by his 79 years. He made a rousing speech, which included the observation that any “rainbow coalition” would have been in hock to the bigots of the DUP.
I spent a most enjoyable half hour sitting at the back of the hall with Alistair Carmichael, making silly jokes and giggling as though we were students again. It was hard to remember he is now the government deputy chief whip – and I think he relished the chance to forget it for a few minutes.
As always with party conferences, it was what you learnt in the bar that was by far the most interesting.
The negotiations woth the Tories on reform of the House of Lords are worrying. The Tories are insisting on “grandfather rights” – those now in the House of Lords, or a large percentage of them, will remain members until they die. Including those new Lords about to be appointed by the parties. They also propose that elected members of the House of Lords should serve a twelve year term. I’ll say that again, a twelve year term. Worryingly the Lib Dem negotiators seem inclined to go along with that ludicrous proposal.