Nick Clegg dashed away from his comedy turn at the Press Gallery lunch on Thursday to get to an even more exciting appointment: the Lib Dem away day/bonding extravaganza.
Holed up in a hotel in the glamorous northern town of Bingley, Lib Dem MPs spent two days chatting, gossiping, plotting and generally rediscovering their love for each other. More than anything, this was a welcome break away from Westminster for the party to regroup after a turbulent few months which has seen heavy losses in local elections and a lost AV referendum, but a government U-turn on the health bill which has been credited as as a Lib Dem victory.
Clegg came into the away days on a relative high, having weathered the local election storm and come out fighting in the NHS debate. And he had a strategy to promote. The Lib Dems pitch to voters is now going to be one of “competence and compassion” – arguing they are more economically competent than Labour and more compassionate than the Tories.
But separating themselves from the Tories is going to be difficult, especially now that, with the NHS row resolved, the other issues on which the two parties could fight – say on immigration or law and order – are ones on which the Lib Dems are on the “wrong side” of public opinion.
Instead, Clegg wants to stress “reasonableness” in government, and urged some of his more vociferous backbenchers not to try and become some form of internal opposition.
But the main point of the trip – to bond again as a party and put cabinet ministers back in touch with their own backbenchers – may have been undermined by a fractious pub quiz on Thursday night, which was won by a team including the rebellious Adrian Sanders, amid rumours of underhanded tactics. You can take the pols out of Westminster…