The old jokes still abounded at the expense of the stereotypical sandal-wearing Liberal Democrat member as the Party kicked off the autumn conference season - "no one would confuse it with London Fashion Week", as one tweeter pointed out - but has the draw of Office had a noticeable impact on the annual conference?
While the media was desperately searching for cracks in the junior Coalition partner's membership base, in reality very little of this was on show at the Liberal Democrat's first conference as a governing party. The majority of the party faithful seemed relatively content with, if a little apprehensive about, the Government's agenda and their Party's role in it. The Coalition and the perceived triumph of the so-called ' Orange Book Liberals' - those on the economic liberal /free market wing of the party who count David Laws, Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg among their number, as opposed to the more left-leaning Beveridge Group, whose numbers in the ministerial positions are notably less - does not seem to have rocked the boat too much. It has, however, only been five months, and Lib Dem Parliamentarians and Party members alike are still getting used to a status they have not enjoyed for over 60 years.
Much was made of the Party leadership's "defeats" by the voting members - notably the votes condemning the Government's policy on free schools and the renewal of Trident. However, the fact that this will do little to change Government policy was summed up by one savvy commentator who asked "when has the Liberal Democrat conference ever influenced Government policy?". Nonetheless the outcome of these votes does officially determine Liberal Democrat party policy; the party prides itself on being the most democratic in the British political system, and still found the time to compare their record on this front to that of the Conservatives. However, the nature of the Coalition means that Nick Clegg can effectively put some of these contentious issues to one side, and the take up of Liberal Democrat policy by the Government will depend precisely on how much he fights for it behind closed doors.
The papers speculated that the Conservatives had ‘vetted' the speeches made by Ministers at the conference (a somewhat cynical view - in reality some degree of coordination between the partners must be practical), most notably those by Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Lib Dem favourite, Vince Cable. In particular Clegg's speech on Monday afternoon, delivered before he jetted off to the UN to deputise for the Prime Minister, was very well-crafted and headed off much off the anticipated criticism and set the tone for the conference well.
The headline speeches were well balanced, with some dog-whistling to the party faithful - Cable's description of his relationship with the banking bosses and his pledges on how he would tackle the ‘big bonus' culture pervading the industry stand out - but on the whole they came across as fairly moderate. The party will not want to upset their partners in Government, but it is also in the interests of the Conservatives to allow the Liberal Democrats a certain amount of leeway in keeping their members on side, especially in these formative early days of the administration. Cable's most popular joke began with reference to him dancing with his Conservative colleagues and led on to them criticising his "two left feet" - cue much applause from the floor. Most of the big name speeches sought to reassure members that the Liberal Democrats would not lose their identity, despite having to fight hard to retain it within the Coalition.
Predictably, the majority of conversations in the main hall and the fringe events peppered around the conference were centred on the impending cuts and deficit reduction plan. While there was a widespread resignation that the cuts would be fully implemented there seemed to be little recognition when the debates entered the nitty-gritty of specific schemes and policies that, in reality, this will mean hard choices for public services and funding. Many debates concluded by agreeing that no services could feasibly be cut (other than the vague 'efficiency savings' that have been touted) and that, if anything, more funding and more services were required.
Most of the new Ministers at the conference (a novel appearance in itself) acquitted themselves well, although there were rumours of Children's Minister Sarah Teather getting into a spot of bother at a fringe event which strayed into the free schools debate. This will continue to prove a tough sell for her within the party, and she had little else in terms of a crowd pleasing announcement on education to help appease her audience.
Understandably, the conference itself was noticeably busier with observers than in previous years with media and business types rubbing shoulders with the party faithful, with someone noting that power equals popularity and adding that there had never been so many good looking people at a Liberal Democrat conference. Hostility towards some the additional guests at conference was not altogether avoided, although after a lifetime of being effectively ignored by the press and business interests this attitude was not wholly unexpected.
The forthcoming Labour conference will be a different kettle of fish altogether, with the emphasis placed on the election of a new leader. Policy may well take a back seat as the new Shadow Cabinet will have yet to be up and running, or even nominated, save for the sympathy prize awarded to whichever Miliband fails to take the leadership position. The theme will be on turning the page and beginning afresh, with plenty of criticism over Government cuts delivered from the safety of opposition.