Saturday at Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham was the scene for two party rebellions to surface – one opposed by the party leadership and one likely to bring the leadership benefits.
The one opposed by the party leadership was the push by Evan Harris and the Social Liberal Forum to get a health motion restored to the conference agenda. There will be both a Q&A session and a “topical discussion” slot, but they also wanted a conventional motion and vote. Despite a rather poor speech from Simon Hughes opposing this attempt, it failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority. The point though has still been made – and many Liberal Democrat peers will take it as a clear sign that they should stick to their guns in pushing for further amendments to the health bill as it goes through conference.
Peers featured in another rebellion, albeit one that was talked about rather than present at conference. For a group of Lib Dem peers actually oppose the government’s plans to introduce elections for the House of Lords, starting in 2015.
Saturday afternoon’s motion on Lords reform saw a particularly powerful intervention from former party leader Ming Cambpell, whose constituency is the successor to that held by Asquith, Liberal leader when the party secured the first major round of Lords reform a century ago. He bluntly told conference that he could not see how a Liberal Democrat could oppose elections and that, in the words of Nelson, they should do their duty to the country.
That is a theme I returned to in my own speech in the debate, pointing out that there is a clue in the party’s name. We are not the Liberal Hereditaries or the Liberal Appointees For Life, but the Liberal Democrats.
Yet there is a benefit for the party leadership in the resistance of some Lib Dem peers. Political pundits go on endlessly about how leaders should have “Clause 4 moments” when they pick a fight with parts of their own parties. In this case, the reluctant peers have handily offered themselves up in opposition to Nick Clegg and democrats, providing an easy route for the Deputy Prime Minister to garner the benefits of a Clause 4 moment without its usual pains.