A party of power - Lib Dem conference predictions
Lib Dem conference gets underway this morning. For the next five days, the TP team will be bringing you news, gossip and opinion from Birmingham, but before I set off, I thought I'd share a few predictions and thoughts on what this conference will mean for the junior coalition partner. Watch out for:
Ministers extolling their 'progressive' influence on their Conservative colleagues. The main aim for the party leadership is going to be to convince their members that they are exerting substantial influence over the direction of the coalition. To this end, equalities minister Lynne Featherstone has announced today that same-sex marriage could be on the statute book by 2015 (in time for the next election). She's speaking at 4pm today (take a look at our handy agenda for everything that's going on), so expect to hear from her how this measure is a prime example Lib Dem influence over their Conservative colleagues. The cynic in me suggests that the Lib Dems do at least seem to have influence over the timing of the announcement - very convenient that it should happen in time to capture the news agenda for the start of a crucial conference for them. However, the Tories are fighting back against this view. A Downing Street source is saying that David Cameron 'personally intervened' to bring this about.
A potential barney about health. The NHS reform issue rumbles on. There will be a 'report-back' session on the reforms on Tuesday morning, featuring Shirley Williams and health minister Paul Burstow, and a 'topical motion' on Wednesday motion, but unlike at their spring conference, party members will not have the chance to spur their ministers into action through a vote. Despite the legislative pause, it seems that many are still unhappy with the shape of the reforms. There's still a chance for a vote, though - it's rumoured that former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris is to lodge an appeal on the decision not to have a vote this afternoon.
No one mentioning electoral reform. There's no mention in the official agenda of the AV referendum at all, nor have I yet been able to find anything about it in the fringe events. May's referendum results was bruising for Clegg and his party, and they seem to be attempting to put the issue on the back burner rather than dwell on the damaging defeat. All constitutional reform efforts now seem to be concentrated on the House of Lords (there's a motion on that this afternoon). On the one hand, it's a pragmatic decision not to keep talking about something the public seemed to reject so comprehensively. But on the other, since electoral reform was and is so important to the Lib Dems, it's surprising to note that they're choosing to take the easy path and let it rest for a while rather than risk more high-profile unpopularity.
And here's the pick of the lines about the conference in the papers this morning:
In The Independent, Nick Clegg tells Andy Grice that his party won't let Osborne cut the 50p tax rate, as "you cannot decide these things without both Coalition parties agreeing, without consensus."
In The Guardian, Polly Toynbee plays down her paper's support for the Lib Dems at the general election last year, and hints that the Labour Party and its supporters must get used to the idea that "a progressive future may be arm in arm".
In the same paper, former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris calls on fellow delegates "to reject what many see as the "Toryisation" of our conference with lots of panel discussions and set-piece speeches".
In the Daily Telegraph, pensions minister Steve Webb tells James Kirkup older people have been persuaded into investing in low interest-rate accounts, and that government should do more to help them.
In The Times, Chris Huhne (£) has made some inflammatory comments, telling Roland Watson that Conservative Eurosceptics are "wrong and wrong again" about Europe and hinted at future co-operation with the Labour Party.
In yesterday's Sun, David Laws MP had a piece urging his party not to get too far away from their Conservative colleagues, saying: "while it is essential that our identity is not lost, it would be a disaster if the Lib Dems were simply to evolve into an internal Opposition".