Having compared Vince Cable’s first speech as party leader to Lib Dem conference with that from Tim Farron, it’s instructive also to look back to Nick Clegg’s.
This was at Liverpool, in the spring of 2008. It was given against the backdrop of a debate over what the party’s line should be on Europe. Sound familiar?
The full text of the speech still reads well: the backstory, the political positioning tied in to the big issues of the day, a scattering of headline catching ideas and so on.
But it also reads badly because although the policies talked about in 2008 were consistent with what the party tried to do (with some success) in 2010-15, the positioning isn’t.
In 2008 Nick Clegg set out to be the preppy anti-establishment outsider:
I’m not shy about doing whatever it takes.
If it means walking out of Parliament when the big parties collude against us, I say: fine.
If it means boycotting banquets that celebrate our relationship with dodgy regimes, like Vince Cable did, or speaking up to expose corruption like Chris Davies did, I say: so be it.
If it means risking court, and refusing to sign up for an Identity Card*, I say: bring it on.
And you can expect more – much more – of that from me
It’s a high-risk strategy.
High-risk indeed given that when it came to 2010 the party took a rather different approach, all about looking comfortable and entrenched in power.
There were some justifications for this. A series of previous general election campaigns had seen hints of a close result that might result in a hung Parliament spun into scare stories about how hung Parliaments would be unstable, chaotic and disastrous. Following those, public support polarised back towards the two main parties and away from the Liberal Democrats. There was, therefore, a very legitimate argument that the Liberal Democrats needed to show that a hung Parliament could be stable and successful.
But think of the key imagery from those early days: they were about showing functioning government. They were also about showing comfort at working with the Conservatives and within the establishment. The Rose Garden press conference was with David Cameron and in Downing Street. The seating arrangements in Parliament had Lib Dems sitting intermingled with Conservatives in the traditional seats for the old parties. And so on.
The policies may have stayed roughly consistently between 2008 and 2010. The overall message about the sort of party the Liberal Democrat are, however, did not. Voters noticed.
* Any reference to ID cards requires a reference to the banana, of course.