Isabel Hardman

Lib Dems swear to get attention - but what about their policies?

Lib Dems swear to get attention - but what about their policies?
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The Lib Dems are in an amusingly sweary mood this weekend at their conference, with Danny Alexander telling the Sun on Sunday that he's p****d off with the Tories for stealing his tax policy, and Lord Ashdown talking about shits and bastards last night. Vince Cable today promised 'more colourful language' about his coalition partners in the speech that he will give later in the conference.

Perhaps Nick Clegg is planning to develop his 'No, no, no' speech from last year to tell delegates about all the times he's had to tell the Tories to eff off in the past four years, though he seems oddly delicate about return fire, with an official complaint about a Home Office source calling the Deputy Prime Minister a 'wanker'.

The strategy behind all this blue language from the yellows is that it gets a bit more attention than Danny Alexander telling a newspaper he's a bit miffed would, just as David Cameron's 'effing Tories' line got more attention in the Scottish referendum.

But the junior partner in the coalition does need to talk about what it wants to do as well as what it doesn't - and work out how to get equal attention for it so that it doesn't just seem to be obsessed with talking about what it hates. Today Vince Cable, as well as talking a lot about the ways in which he had beaten the Tories into submission on foreign students and the net migration target and criticising the plan to freeze working aged benefits and cut taxes, also defended the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. He told a ministerial Q&A session that though this was 'curate's egg' of a policy, there were many myths about it, particularly on how it would affect the NHS. He even said he'd invited 38 Degrees for a meeting to discuss the agreement, which had 'a good Liberal principle' at its heart, but that the campaign group hadn't taken him up on that offer.

But one of the problems is that the Lib Dems did a lot of announcing over the summer, assuming (possibly rightly) that even if they were going to have fun at their autumn conference, they might not get much interest coming as the final word at the end of a very busy season. And what other announcements they had hoped to make seem to have struggled to get off the ground. Cable told the session that he had struggled to get an announcement on business rates out in time for conference:

'I had hoped at conference we would be able to announce something that would really help small businesses on business rates, because this is a real problem area. We haven’t quite got to the conclusion of these discussions, but I think there will be something positive in the pipeline at the autumn statement.'

Mostly, though the focus seems to be on setting out clear yellow water between the party and the Conservatives, dismissing their plans to freeze benefits as unfair. And that's not a bad focus, to be fair: it's better than the attack that Labour orchestrated on how the tax cuts would be funded.