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.