Michael Moore began his speech in storm-battered Brighton this morning with a joke:
In an ever-changing world, it’s reassuring to know that Brighton conference remains the same. Fabulous weather, delegates compliant with the leadership line…
Except it didn’t work, because this year the delegates actually have been compliant with the leadership line, even voting en masse in favour of the coalition’s economic policy. As one observer remarked to me: “It’s like they are in a trance-like state.”
The mood at this conference seems to be one of resignation. Nick Clegg has been telling interviewers he is “battle-scarred”, while delegates talk of “staying the course” with the coalition and hoping the party’s poll ratings improve before 2015.
Leadership challenges to Nick Clegg have not arisen. Vince Cable, still the most credible challenger, was assiduously complimentary to his leader during his speech. Ed Davey has been touring the TV studios denying stories that he has been plotting. Even after his tuition fee apology, which angered some in the party, Clegg has been allowed to sail through conference unscathed.
How long can this go on for? I have heard various theories. One minister told me yesterday they expected Lib Dem poll ratings to remain in the doldrums until the 2015 election campaign, but that Clegg would be able to get through this. Another senior MP said that if by next year’s conference the economy has not picked up, the leader will be in serious trouble.
One thing protecting the Lib Dem leader is that any prospective challenger is unlikely to want to lead the party for just a few months or even years before what seems like an inevitable drubbing at the next election. Better to let Clegg stagger on and try and pick up the pieces afterwards.
But if things get any worse over the next year, the party could yet be forced out of their trance-like state and into action.