My Bloomberg colleague Rob Hutton got it right when we walked into a small side room at Birmingham’s ICC on Sunday to watch Hugh Grant (and others) talk about phone hacking. As we were greeted by an explosion of flashing lightbulbs, he turned to me and commented: “It looks like the ending of Notting Hill.”
Grant was impressive, his clear speaking (punctuated by plenty of swearwords) gave some relief to the political wonkery that usually characterises conference. But at times bluntness began to look like superficiality, such as when he turned on the Met for trying to use the Official Secrets Act to force the Guardian to reveal its sources:
For the [police's new investigatory team] to turn on fellow goodies in this battle is worrying and also deeply mysterious.
Instead, it was left to the party president, Tim Farron, to deliver the performance that really captured the conference. His language was passionate, funny and brutally honest, such as when he talked about party’s dire local election results in May:
In much of the country we got slaughtered.
In Scotland, in many of our great cities, in shire districts Liberal Democrats who have served their communities and worked their backsides off for years, got their backsides kicked.
I want to say this to you now, if you lost your seat, I stand with you; I am angry on your behalf; I take the responsibility and I absolutely will not insult you by claiming that this was collateral damage, or an understandable mid term blip.
But, surprisingly, he got his best reception by comparing party members to cockroaches:
You know, I reckon if either of the other parties saw their poll ratings dip into single figures, they would implode and cease to be.
They couldn’t hack it mentally or emotionally, and the vested interests that they serve would abandon them.
Not with us. We’ve got nerves of steel. Survival is what we do.
A bit like cockroaches after a nuclear war, just a bit less smelly, we are made of sterner stuff.
It could have been a leadership bid. If only he hadn’t also said:
Who is taking the Blairite nonsense out of the NHS bill?
Who put the bankers back in their boxes over financial restructuring?
Who stood up against reactionary Tory drivel after the riots?
The speech was clearly designed to energise the base rather than appeal to a wider audience. But at a conference where there is no immediate leadership crisis, where the NHS controversy has been reduced from a debate to a Q&A session and where even Vince Cable hasn’t launched an attack on greedy bankers, speeches like that are sorely needed.