Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Crowd-pleasing sits top of Clegg's conference agenda

The Liberal Democrat conference used to be the party's annual opportunity to showcase itself. Getting in there before Labour and the Conservatives stole the limelight, the Lib Dems would relish the attention, with publicity-grabbing policy announcements.

These were usually accompanied by the party leader telling any interviewer who would listen that he could, indeed, see himself as Prime Minister one day.

These days, the role of the Lib Dems' conference is very different and the eye-catching announcements serve another purpose.

No longer in danger of anonymity, Nick Clegg is the deputy Prime Minister and the build-up to his party's trip to Brighton will be marked by attempts to butter up grassroots members, some of whom will be furious.

Where recent conferences gave members an opportunity to berate their leader over tuition fees, this time they will be smarting over the humiliating treatment handed out to their dreams of reforming the House of Lords.

To be fair, this anger is likely to be directed at the Lib Dems' coalition partners, for it was the rebellion by Tory backbenchers that eventually proved too much for the hopes of reform in this parliament.

The raising of the income tax threshold has been hailed as a Lib Dem triumph, but constitutional reform is what many party members wanted and that lies in tatters. It is hard to think of a time since the 2010 General Election when Mr Clegg has not been the target for somebody's ire. Many Westminster-watchers are convinced that he will not lead the Lib Dems into the next General Election.

Over the weekend, Lord Smith of Clifton, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster and the Lib Dems' Northern Ireland spokesman, called for Mr Clegg to be replaced by Vince Cable.

Party heavyweights Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy leapt to Clegg's defence, but it's been an awkward few days for the man who last week described being pipped by George Osborne to the title of least popular politician as "a small mercy".

It was Osborne who was first to poor cold water on Mr Clegg's conference curtain-raiser - a one-off tax-hit on the rich. It's important not to scare away the "wealth-creators," the Chancellor responded.

Even by raising the prospect of a tough tax on the wealthy, Mr Clegg will have endeared himself to his party.

And by dismissing it, Mr Osborne might have appeased some of his supporters. That is what conference season is all about.

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