Postcard from Brighton

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Postcard from Brighton

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The Liberal Democrat conference comes to Brighton

The sea at Brighton is a menacing dark green. It is churning angrily, waves dashing against the rusty burnt-out shell of Brighton pier.

Inside the conference centre, another burnt-out shell of an aged, beloved institution is on show. The Liberal Democrat conference is in full swing. Rooms of confident-looking youth mix with a slightly more aged demographic. It’s like an episode of The Thick of It but set in an airport departure lounge. Without the jokes.

Well, one or two. The Scottish secretary, Michael Moore, is being interviewed by a TV crew. Foolishly, somebody opens a door behind him. Half of the set is blown down. Moore, to his credit, pulls a big grin and soldiers on. Willie Rennie, leader of the party in Scotland, looks on approvingly.

In the conference hall, Moore’s speech (boo the SNP) is met with polite applause.  Rennie’s effort (ditto) has a few chuckle lines added. Both are warmly received.

Then a series of short presentations, most of them concerning inequality. Councillors and MPs speak. All are reasonable, well intentioned. The capabilities index. Togetherness. Fair pay for all. The nursery premium. But to give in to cynicism for a moment: it’s always deflating when a politician quotes a “constituent” they were “talking to the other day.” It’s the lazy rhetorician’s fallback deus ex machina, and causes the words that follow to tiptoe apologetically into the room, a wan smile on their faces, waving weakly, knowing full well their impostor status.

But then a serious point. Some people cannot afford to attend the conference—they should be allowed to address it by video link. The audience murmurs in approval. “Good idea,” says the member sitting next to me. Is it unfair to mention that he has a beard?

Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the treasury, is on stage and the hall is full. Earlier, I exited a lift and almost walked straight into Alexander. He is a tall man, much taller than you think, like George Osborne. What is it that makes these finance ministers grow so tall? Their lofty ambitions? Or is it their tall stories?

Yes the hall is full, but no Alexander is not an inspiring speaker. Wise man, he say, “Big pronouncement on maintenance of low interest rates doth not a clap-line make.” Fighting rising fuel costs. Ooooh! Cutting tax relief on pensions. Ahhh! These are non-trivial subjects for sure, but a long way off Michael Heseltine’s famous ability to get his party started.

Rich tax dodgers? “We are coming to get you and you will pay your fair share,” booms Alexander. There is applause. But not much. The roof is still in situ. No threat of any sudden descent.

Tax. More tax. The mansion tax? It is referred to obliquely. “Believe it or not I am a fashion icon on the streets of Pakistan.” Eh? What is he talking about? Many in the audience look dumbfounded.

We made sure of more investment in transport and post offices, says Alexander testily—and all of this mid-recession. Do you think the Tories would have done it alone? That’s the difference the Lib Dems are making, he says, and being a Lib Dem in the Treasury has not weakened my Liberal convictions—it has strengthened them. It’s a strange thing to say. Odd to concede, no matter how tacitly and especially in a speech as scrutinised as this, that your party has a reputation for being out of place in the treasury. It is hard to imagine any other party admitting to its weaknesses, perceived or otherwise, in such a public way.

The speech hits its climax and there is applause. Danny Alexander waves to the crowd. Is he looking a little taller than before?

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Jay Elwes
Jay Elwes is deputy editor of Prospect 

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