The Guardian ran this piece from me earlier today:
Travelling by train to the Liberal Democrat conference yesterday, I did what I usually do on my way to party conferences – read through the agenda and background policy information.
Except this time there was one key difference. I wasn’t reading a list of worthy exhortations from which, if the Liberal Democrats were really lucky, a couple of policies might be lifted by another party a few years in the future. Instead, I was reading an agreed programme for government which is being put into force.
Moreover, despite it being an agreed programme with the Conservative party, large chunks of it were straight out of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Even on issues where the parties firmly disagree, the agreement in practice does not change much. Yes, the Liberal Democrats in principle like the euro and the Conservatives do not. But in practice almost no one in the party thinks the economic circumstances for joining the euro have any chance of being right in the next five years, so in practice saying no the euro for the next few years requires no alteration of policy.
That is why the people I met at Birmingham, just like those I had talked to in the preceding week, were overwhelmingly pleased with the coalition government’s policy agreement. Compared with the usual habit of reading a new government’s plans and disagreeing with most of them, this is an agreement where – thanks to the party’s decision to take part in a coalition – the overwhelming majority are ones the party supports.
That is also why, despite the rather hyperbolic shouts of betrayal from some in the Labour party, the mood in Birmingham was positive and, while they are cautious and fretful about what the future may bring, they are looking forward to seeing so many Lib Dem policies implemented. As several speakers said during the debate, the coalition means far more Liberal Democrat policies will be introduced than would otherwise have been the case.
That debate lasted nearly four hours, during which a few voices of opposition spoke out. The final vote though was so overwhelming (I made it about 98% – 2%) that Nick Clegg joked it had been rather North Korean in style.
More significant were the points made during the debate and the amendments passed, which pressed for the party to stick to its guns on a range of issues, including long-term opposition to tuition fees, support for proportional representation for the Commons and income and wealth inequality.
Tuition fees (and possibly Trident, not debated yesterday) may be the trickiest issues to navigate but, as the financial markets would say, those risks are already priced in to people expectations for the coalition.
Against that too has to be set the widespread optimism that having Liberal Democrats as ministers will see a wide range of policies and principles followed in the day to day working of government. It was notable that all the ministers speaking during the debate described themselves as such – and were strongly applauded when they did. They were also regularly accosted by people congratulating them on their appointments.
Even the oldest speaker in the debate could only just remember when there were last Liberals in government. For a party that believes the state has a role in making the country fairer, freer and greener, in the end it’s no surprise that the presence of Liberal Democrats with hands on some of those levers of power was widely welcomed.