This year’s Liberal Democrat conference was the oddest I’ve attended. 2013 was about an agenda for the last eighteen months of government, 2014 a morale-boosting send-off for the annihilation they all knew was coming (‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for oblivion,’ as David Steel could have said), 2015 a defiant renewal, 2016 a time of anger following the referendum and also a time for making a clear pitch for the 48%.
Bournemouth 2017 was different, and it feels as though the Liberal Democrats are mid-way through an odd round of musical chairs. There is a curious mix of MPs who have lost their seats in 2017 (Clegg, Olney), or 2015 (Huppert, Cable, Swinson) – some of whom have since retaken their seats. Some previous MPs are now in the Lords (Burt) or at think tanks (Laws). Layla Moran, the new education spokesperson, has had the chance to shine and stand out in a way that would be impossible at the conferences of the larger parties.
But amid all this I sense two slightly different themes. The first is that the party is beginning to properly discuss its time in government. Previously, you’d hear the argument that the party being able in coalition to soften the Conservatives’ worst excesses was worth the electoral disaster that came in 2015, as though the party was working to remind itself of its service to the nation. Now, for the first time, there were serious critiques of things that the party had done. Such a reckoning is a major part of the healing process and shows that the party is ready to have serious discussions once more.
Second, the party also seems to understand that it has a bit of time on its side: that after several years of perpetual movement there are now at least three years before another general election. There is the opportunity to use its strength and experience in the Lords to call the government to account, but there is also the chance to slow down the internal debate a little and perhaps renew in a way that wasn’t previously possible. Besides, it isn’t as though there is a national car crash to deal with, is it?