Letter from Westminster

Every year around this time MPs find themselves in the busy and slightly surreal environment that is the party conference.

In years gone by this would mean a trip to the seaside – Brighton or Blackpoool, perhaps. This year we have been in Birmingham, a city that is the birthplace of Duran Duran and apparently boasts more canals than Venice.

Trading in the Houses of Parlia­ment for a travel lodge and endless meetings and fringe events can be a challenge, but conference is also an opportunity to meet with old friends and catch up. It also gives party members a chance to have their say on any number of policy issues.

The Liberal Democrats have been described by some as a party that is democratic to the point of reckless­ness and it is true that our members get a far greater say in determining party policy than members of other parties.

I have never been to any of the other conferences but I am told that the Tories, in particular, can tend to resemble a North Korean political gathering, with little in the way of public dissent or differences of opinion. While as a party whip I can appreciate the merits of this kind of approach this is not something that would wash with our members.

Consensus of opinion is not some­thing that is traditional at Lib Dem conferences and this year has been no exception. Debate has been robust and vigorous – exactly as it should be.

However, I have been impressed at the level of maturity and prag­matism that has been displayed by speakers in the conference hall and around the various fringe events.

The difficulties associated with being in government at a time of economic crisis have been well documented but despite the range of views presented on issues such as the NHS or pensions reform, there is a general acceptance that the steps that the government is taking to get the public finances back on an even keel are necessary.

The feeling I get from the dele­gates is that this is now a party that is now more comfortable with being in government. There is a real sense of pride at the range of government policies that came straight out of our party manifesto and a recognition that we are punching above our weight in Whitehall.

Addressing the conference rally on Saturday night I was able to remind delegates that this is not just our view but apparently also the view of the Daily Mail, Daily Tele­graph and right-wing Tory MPs such as Nadine Dorries.

While in Birmingham I also spent much of the week pursuing the issue of our emergency towing vessel with Treasury ministers. I have been reminding them of the all the reasons why we have the ETVs in the first place. This is about coastal pro­tection.

Obviously the deadline is now looming and as I write this I am continuing to make that case.

Alistair Carmichael


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