Peter Hoskin

The politics of the Lib Dem conference

The politics of the Lib Dem conference
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It's only gesture politics, but sometimes gestures matter – which is why the Tories are thinking seriously about dispatching a party envoy to the Lib Dem conference in September. The idea, naturally, is to cement the bonds of friendship between the two sides, as well as to suggest that the Tories are happy to mix it with the wider Lib Dem party. But there's a problem: that wider party doesn't seem eager to play along. As soon as there were rumblings that Cameron might speak at their conference, they slapped the idea down with the unswerving efficiency of an executioner. And they've done similar today in response to reports that William Hague is being lined to up deliver a "witty" address in Cameron's stead. A party spokesman tells Lib Dem Voice that, "William Hague is not part of the conference agenda and I can confirm that he has not been asked to speak at the Liberal Democrat conference."

Speaking to Lib Dems around Westminster, their main concern is that the Tories' outreach programme could start to look like a land-grab. The conference is their chance to speak and listen to the party leadership, they say, and they don't want any Tories wedging themselves into that process. But they do seem keener on having a Lib Dem minister, maybe Nick Clegg, speak at the Tory get-together in Birmingham. To them, that would show that the smaller party hasn't been subsumed by the larger one, and that it has an independent contribution to make to the process of government. It would symbolise that, as Danny Finkelstein put it, "there is a space for the Liberal Democrats as champions of liberalism". 

In any case, you can expect more attention to be paid to this issue over the summer. The choreography of the party conferences is relatively petty stuff – but the message it sends out seems to matter deeply to scores of attendees, as well as to the government. As with all forays into uncharted territory, both sides will want to tread carefully.