There’s always been a slight air of fantasy about Brighton, from the fantasy architecture of its famous pavilion, to the fantasies of all those who move there hoping for a new start, a new life. So it’s particularly appropriate that the Liberal Democrats are having their conference by its pebbled beach and stuccoed terraces: this is, indisputably, a fantasy conference.
What is the conference motto? “Fairer tax in tough times” is emblazoned on every pass issued, and it flaps on rain-streaked banners. It’s a good motto. Some kind of wealth tax is the right issue to pick up, when people on welfare and the lower paid are being coshed. Reviewing the ludicrous extravagance of a Trident nuclear deterrent is, likewise, an excellent idea. Fighting for stronger environmental policies – investing in alternative energy, building greener infrastructure – is, too, a noble cause.
There’s just one tiny little problem, guys. You are in government as part of a strongly rightwing Conservative-led regime. Nick Clegg may have bravely asserted on Sunday that he was going to persuade David Cameron and George Osborne to sign up to a wealth tax, of some so far unspecified kind, but presumably a tax on property. Really?
There are two possible responses. The first, that this is a thin, unconvincing attempt to fool his party and the public – a piece of conference-season posturing that will weaken him further, and pretty quickly. The second, that he believes it; that he’s fooling himself. If so, he has left political reality so far behind that he has, at some fundamental level, lost it. Does he not talk to any Tory MPs or read the Conservative-supporting press? They are convinced the public have had enough of welfare spending rather than wanting to tax the rich.
Cameron and Osborne are under pressure from their own right wing, and if they conceded a wealth tax they would have open revolt in the parliamentary party. A wealth tax or indeed a mansion tax would be much more substantial than the tax crackdown announced on Sunday, which is no more than trying to ensure that the law is obeyed. But it’s a policy for a Labour government, or a Lab-Lib coalition, not for this one.
That’s why Ed Balls is studying it, and that’s why other Lib Dems, including Vince Cable (who increasingly resembles a lugubrious hitman from some cold-war thriller – the Bulgarian in the fedora), are talking to Labour. However strongly Clegg suggests it, it isn’t a policy he will ever be able to implement in this coalition.
The same is patently true of rethinking Trident. Again, that’s the kind of radical, progressive response to horribly tough economic times one would expect from a thinking centre-left party. And again, it ain’t going to happen under Cameron and Co. It’s a policy for some other government, as yet unelected, at some other time. Reviving a strong environmental agenda is in the same category. Great, but after the Osborne-led shift to a deregulatory strategy to boost building and businesses, it’s not going to happen under this coalition.
What’s happening in Brighton is clear enough. The Lib Dems think of themselves as essentially a centre-left party, and are wallowing in the fantasy of presenting themselves as progressive politicians, ready to squeeze the rich and green the nation. The trouble is, in a few days’ time, they make the short journey back north to Westminster – where they return to a centre-right government run by people who share none of these views.
The Lib Dem fantasy is to concentrate on the one-day, might-be coalition with Labour they’d prefer, and policies they’d follow then. Who knows? It could happen. But meanwhile, by far the likeliest outcome of this posturing is that Clegg’s new red lines on tax will simply mean minimal planning by the government on fiscal policy generally. He can stop Osborne making deeper welfare cuts – that’s useful, and worth it – while Osborne can end his hopes of further taxes on the rich. It will be economic stalemate, very like the constitutional stalemate that followed the frustrating of Lords reform and boundary changes.
So we will see, in the next two years, an even less confident and assertive government than we have experienced up to now. It will mean a drop in infrastructure spending, and probably an end to hopes of real, funded reform of the care system.
The final part of this fantasy conference is the commonly held idea that Clegg isn’t really the Lib Dem leader, or at any rate won’t be for long. Tim Farron is coming! Vince is on his way!
But the plotting is real enough. A group of defeated MPs and others are planning a motion for the Lib Dem gathering next spring to change the party rules in order to allow leaders to be ousted by the party conference. They’d be unlikely to get the necessary two-thirds majority, but a simple numerical one would be such a stinging rejection of Clegg that he would have to resign. Then, the argument goes, the party could find a different leader (probably Cable, as a stopgap) for the 2015 election, and save as many seats as possible.
Usually, we’re told that conference plots are fantasies, and we should concentrate on the policies. Well, this time round, it’s the other way about. The new policy positions are airy dreams, but the skullduggery is both real and becoming a more practical proposition with every opinion poll.
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