Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Lib Dem faithful remain divided over sorry Clegg

Conference season is in full swing and we Westminster-watchers are cramped into an ageing conference centre with the Liberal Democrats in Brighton, which must be the wettest part of the UK. Twenty-nine years after Neil Kinnock came a cropper, it will be a brave minister who attempts a photocall along the seafront this week.

Party conferences tend to have a theme and this week's slogan, which is hard to avoid as it's printed across the passes around our necks, is 'fairer taxes for all'. Another one, which would have cost less to print and better summed up the mood, might be 'sorry'.

Nick Clegg's YouTube apology over tuition fees, now number 143 in the charts, was aimed as much at the grassroots activists he was about to address as the students who gave him their vote in 2010.

Opinion among members seems to be mixed. There is a sense of relief and the hope this could finally lay the issue to rest.

But there is also frustration that he apologised for promising to abolish fees - not for the three-fold increase he voted for. Like a cheating husband apologising for promising to be faithful, rather than for cheating, some mutter.

The habit for apologising seems to be spreading.

After David Cameron's well-received speech on Hillsborough, yesterday brought a rather less-effective apology, as Andrew 'Thrasher' Mitchell reiterated how sorry he was for saying something. He won't say what it was, but it definitely didn't include the word 'pleb', which is the most toxic part of the allegation made by Downing Street police officers. A public-school ex-banker sneering at the police adds up to a horrible episode for the Government.

And, as Mr Clegg's apology lives on thanks to a musical remix, the chief whip's woes are also likely to drag on. By insisting he has been misquoted, he is pitting himself against the notes taken by a policeman and it's hard to see how this can be resolved until he tells everyone what he thinks he said, which he is trying to avoid.

Back to the Lib Dem conference and another alternative message appears to be: 'We are very different from those evil Tories'. It is vital that the party carves out a distinct identity before the next election and so ministers are straying somewhat off-message.

Yesterday, Vince Cable - for many the leader-in-waiting - made a quip about old Etonians David Cameron and Boris Johnson's rivalry. "Perhaps a pillow-fight got out of control," he speculated, before branding himself "a mere pleb" - to the delight of the audience.

Dave might ask the business secretary for an apology of his own the next time Cabinet meets.

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