Liverpool, long associated with the downtrodden, dispossessed and the downright dejected, makes an apt place for the Liberal Democrats, in all their self-regarding misery, to gather for their annual party conference. One might have thought that, since this is (wartime apart) the first time in nearly ninety years that British Liberals have convened as a party of government, it would be possible to detect a certain cheeriness about them; a spring in the step, a tendency to reach for another sun-dried tomato or make up your own answers to the Guardian crossword, or whatever else it is that moderates do when they’re on a bender. This though would be to misread the Lib Dem persona.   Eternal victims in victimhood’s eternal city, the Libs look about as happy as if they had just discovered that Charlie Kennedy is back on the sauce.

The mood of dejection cannot entirely be explained by the party’s X-rated poll ratings which, though graphic, are no worse than those they must have got used to down the  years.  To paraphrase Enoch Powell, a Liberal Democrat complaining about low poll numbers is like a sailor bitching about the sea. On the contrary, psephological oppression is part of the rich loam from which grows the Liberal Democrat’s florid sense of injustice and his unshakeable belief in voting reform as a pathway towards a more enlightened world where the minimum number of votes returns the maximum number of his party’s MPs.

The problem, I rather fancy, is that having – the atrocities of first-past-the-post notwithstanding – got themselves into government, the Liberal Democrats are not at all certain they like what it is they find there. It is one thing, like excited children, to stand at the top of the steps leading down into a dark cellar, squealing with anticipation about the prospect of walking down, quite another to be in the cellar itself with George Osborne ululating through the blackness and the icy fingers of Liam Fox slipping down your back. This indeed seems to me to be the central paradox of Liberal Democrat politics: the one thing that can be most said to define their political outlook – a change to our constitution to make it easier for them to share in power – is also that which leads to where they least want to be – in office and with nowhere to hide.

Of course, many will reasonably object that it is not the being in office that so appalls the average Liberal Democrat, but the idea of sharing that office with the old enemy, the Conservatives. Trident is a case in point. Conservatives, by and large, believe passionately in Britain retaining the capacity to use its own nuclear weapons. A few Conservatives believe in retaining the capacity to use nuclear weapons against the Liberal Democrats. The junior coalition partner meanwhile holds the equally passionate belief that Britain’s enemies can anywhere and everywhere be disarmed by the essential reasonableness of Sir Menzies Campbell.  These differences are irreconcilable. This is not to say that Mr Cameron and  Mr Clegg will not try to reconcile them, even if that turns out to be at the cost of Dr Fox taking his icy fingers elsewhere. The Liberal Democrats would doubtless feel a little more smug, but not a whole lot less insecure.

As a result of all this a divide is opening up between the party’s politburo, who by and large remain persuaders for the coalition, and the rest, who yearn for the certainties of perpetual opposition and the hope that they can make it up with Labour. This could turn nasty. When Vince Cable was due to address the conference yesterday, for example, there was a heart-stopping delay between him being announced and arriving at the podium. Surely this kindly old gent couldn’t have been mugged in the green room by Simon Hughes a man whom, if Paddy Ashdown is capable of killing with his bare hands, could certainly leave you permanently incapacitated with his earnestness. The clue is in those staring eyes. Mr Cable finally hobbled to the stage, apparently with all his limbs intact. Even so it would be worth checking for broken bones.

And so Mr Cable was able to speak, from behind a podium bearing the conference slogan “Delivering for Britain” which, were you not paying attention – always a reasonably high risk at the Lib Dem conference – could beguile you into believing that you had arrived at the annual congress of the Royal College of Midwives.  Luckily the sainted Vince was not required to address the theme of delivering for Britain – lucky since his rapidly contracting industry department will soon enough lack the wherewithal to deliver pizza – but was there to take part in a debate on making the party more diverse.

This comes about because people who are inclined to notice these things have noticed that not a single one of the party’s 57 MPs is anything but white. “We have a deficiency of white working class candidates at all levels” said Mr Cable, aligning himself to the little-known Alf Garnett tendency in Liberal Democrat politics, and perhaps missing the point of the debate. Lib Dems too posh says the old economic sage himself. But not perhaps, in light of that tantalisingly ambiguous conference slogan, too posh to push.


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