Facing disastrous polls, stuck with an unpopular leader and short of star names, the Lib Dems should be panicking at their conference. So why does it feel like a holiday camp?
Nick Clegg on stage at the party conference.
Arriving at the Liberal Democrat conference at Birmingham's ICC on Monday, I'm confronted with a strange, becalmed atmosphere. At first I think everyone present is still in a state of shock, reeling from the double-pronged assault on the senses presented over the weekend by Hugh Grant's appearance and the minister of state for children and families' attempt at standup comedy, but it appears to be something else, a sort of blithe cheeriness.
I've never been to a party conference before and I've come expecting dissent. But apparently I've missed the boat: I should have been at the spring conference in Sheffield, when there were "a lot of angry people inside the conference and out", the latter group including 4,000 people marching in protest at the cuts. Now, the delegates at least are all pacified, convinced that a corner has been turned, that a line has been drawn under the tuition fees debacle, that public anger at the cuts is due to subside. The spirit of the party who in 1981 leapt to their feet, fleetingly convinced by David Steel's line about going home to their constituencies and preparing for government, is very much abroad.
The moment when a lone voice shouts: "Rubbish!" as Danny Alexander suggests Gordon Brown spent too much money turns out to be a dizzying pinnacle of insurrectionary excitement that the conference will never scale again. It's all glossy optimism, and woe betide anyone who attempts to suggest that said glossy optimism might be bordering on the delusional. A man from the BBC quotes a few poll figures at a Guardian Q&A panel, but no one wants to know. Someone bellows: "Did Miliband send you?" A woman seated behind me starts pretending to snore. "You're a miserable sod," snaps Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister. Everyone cheers. The BBC man leaves.
My own search for dissent is equally fruitless. You would think that somewhere within the ICC lurked hand-wringing angst at the ongoing state of affairs, desperate to unburden itself to a representative of the press, but if it's there, I can't find it. I try Liberal Youth, surely at the sharp end of public displeasure thanks to the the spectre of tuition fees, something they continue to oppose. Nothing but visions of a bright future, in which Britain suddenly wakes up to the brakes put on Tory policy by the presence of the Lib Dems in the coalition and flocks to their bonded side.
So I try the people who look like party traditionalists, who are substantially easier to spot than some reports have suggested. One idea posited in the papers is that the very fabric of the party has changed, that the traditional beards-and-sandals Lib Dems have been displaced by the hard-nosed political operators in Heston Blumenthal specs. If you wanted to prove it, you could certainly get a shot of the delegates that doesn't feature anyone who looks like a Daily Telegraph cartoonist's idea of what a Lib Dems looks like, but you couldn't take it with a wide-angle lens, and you might have to crop it in Photoshop later. They're everywhere, the beards ranging from 50s jazz enthusiast to competitor in The Great Egg Race. Perhaps somewhere behind them lurks the simmering discontent conspicuous by its absence elsewhere. Perhaps not. They clearly like power – "before, you'd debate a policy at conference and think, well, the absolute best that's going to happen is that another party's going to nick that idea," offers one local councillor – and its trappings, or at least some of them. "There are a lot more lobbyists around conference these days," shudders one delegate, principles being something that are noticeably easier to keep when no one's interested in buying them. But for most part, even the lobbyists' baleful presence seems to be cancelled out by the positives, high among which ranks the preponderance of TV cameras and microphones. You can't walk far without overhearing someone expressing astonished delight at being canvassed for their opinions by the media: "I've been waylaid by Anglia TV!" cries one elderly gentleman.
The mood even seems to surprise Nick Clegg. "Heavens! What docility!" he says during a Q&A on Monday afternoon. "It's like a North Korean party conference." One theory is that it's all evidence of the redoubtable Lib Dem character, forged in endless adversity. You hear a lot about the time under Paddy Ashdown when Lib Dems were represented by an asterisk in the opinion polls: after taking into account the 3% margin of error, they were unable to say that the party had any discernible support at all. However bad the polls get, they've seen worse, even when the polls strongly suggest they haven't. Another is that they realise power is a temporary blip in a life of opposition and they're trying their best to relish it, which necessarily involves ignoring what's going to happen in three-and-a-half years' time.
The most prosaic answer is that a lot of delegates seem to view the conference as a kind of holiday. Like holidaymakers who've paid a lot of money to get away from it all – "more than £1,000, less than £2,000", suggests one delegate when I ask him how much it's cost him to be here; "more than a week in the south of France", offers another – they don't really care to be reminded of what's going on back home. "Do I wish that there was more robust debate?" frowns one local councillor. "No. I get enough of that on the doorstep."
And, if you wanted to relax, there are worse places to come than the Lib Dem conference, where it's frequently hard not to be lulled into a torpor by what's going on onstage. Part of the problem is that the Lib Dems are evidently in desperately short supply of stars. On Monday night, Vince Cable is booked to speak at three fringe meetings at exactly the same time. Outside, a jovial Brummie police officer approaches a gaggle of press photographers, apparently baffled at how they prosecute their business: "Have you lot got a Who's Who or something? I haven't got a clue who any of them are." His theory seems to be borne out when you visit the Liberal Image stall, where a Lib Dem hi-visibility jacket – something a cautious man might think twice about wearing in public – will set you back £14.50. There's a selection of badges available featuring the faces of the party's MPs: they seem to be doing a brisk trade in Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams – "we've sold about 12" – but you'd defy anyone other than a party wonk to recognise most of the others.
But the real problem is that what stars they have are hopeless at public speaking. It's hard not to feel that party president Tim Farron's rise is predicated on possessing an identifiable personality, something almost everyone else who gets in front of a microphone seems to have been surgically deprived of. You can mock Nick Clegg's closing speech all you like, but it's like Alexander the Great's address at the battle of Issus next to the orations of Chris Huhne, a man who sounds like he's reading out the building's fire regulations even when he's quoting John Donne (he gives a speech quoting John Donne for the specific purpose of proving this). He gets a standing ovation at the end of it, which makes you marvel afresh at the dogged resilience of your average Lib Dem delegate. They're determined to be roused regardless of whether what's on offer is rousing or lethal.
Given the climate, you start to find yourself baffled as to why Sarah Teather's standup routine went down so badly. In fairness, her awful jokes were no more awful than anyone else's, and everybody else's seem to be greeted with widespread hysteria. Vince Cable tells one about bankers having their pants around their ankles, "showing us their assets – if they've got any". A woman two rows in front of me nearly dies laughing. Perhaps what Teather should have done was mention the bankers, which it quickly becomes apparent is the Lib Dem politician's equivalent of Peter Kaye saying "GARLIC BREAD?": no matter how many times you hear it, it always seems to get a round of applause.
The reliable arrival of banker gags aside nothing really seems to be happening. Journalists looking for something to report are reduced to making headlines out of the fact that Huhne is sorry about the effect that his affair had on his wife. But even at a Lib Dem conference where nothing appears to be happening, there's always the Glee Club, the ritual last night of conference knees-up. It's existence is – at last! – a matter of some controversy within the party. There are those who think it's part of a rich, glorious and idiosyncratic tribal tradition. There are those who clearly view its existence with profound embarrassment: "Lembit often MCs," says one local councillor, darkly. To the impartial observer, however, it simply represents an opportunity to have your mind repeatedly blown: if you thought the general air of positivity at the conference was a bit unreal, then the Glee Club is on hand to teach you that "unreal" is very much a relative concept. You don't even have to go to get the effect of being subject to an intense hallucinogenic experience. You just have to pick up the songbook, which is the best £3.50 you could spend at the Lib Dem conference, Liberal Image's enticing selection of badges featuring MPs notwithstanding.
For some reason, I'd expected it to largely consist of 19th-century political songs: The Land, stirring stuff about free trade and Gladstone. They're certainly present, but they're pretty much dealt with by page six. It's what's in the remaining 52 pages that knocks you sideways, not least when you get to the song about the coalition set to the tune of Making Your Mind Up by Bucks Fizz: "You gotta Lib it up and then you gotta Con it down, coz if you believe that our coalition can hit the top you've gotta play around."
By the time I arrive, Lembit Opik is very much in evidence, playing his mouth organ to a less dismayed reaction than you might expect. Some Welsh delegates favour the room with a rendition of Cwn Rhondda: if nothing else, it permanently punctures the myth of Wales as the land of song. Paddy Ashdown does a little standup routine. Tim Farron takes the stage and performs a comical version of That's Not My Name by the Ting Tings: "They call me Shirley, but I'm not a girlie." There has been some discussion at conference about the necessity for the Liberal Democrats to convince the British public that they're different from the other parties. If all else fails, they could always show them this. In the corner, a lobbyist looks on, wearing the kind of frozen, aghast expression that makes me think of the first-night audience at Springtime for Hitler in The Producers.
The next day, at a fringe meeting just before Nick Clegg's speech, the guy from Ipsos Mori lets them have it with both barrels. His Powerpoint presentation opens with a slide reading HOW DEEP IS THE HOLE?, but not all of it is as upbeat as that: if his news was any worse, he'd be wreathed in smoke and glowing green. Fifty-eight per cent of people who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election wouldn't again. A quarter of former supporters have swung to Labour. The Lib Dem voters that are left admire Margaret Thatcher. And, for the benefit of anyone who tends to the view that they've had worse, Nick Clegg is the least popular Lib Dem leader ever, beating a record David Steel has held since 1988 by 4%.
On and on it goes, until you wonder what Clegg can possibly say to lift their spirits – what price a new summer schools initiative and a few swings at Labour against the news that more than half your voters have deserted? – but they go bananas. Afterwards, I see one of the Liberal Youth activists, who's eager to tell me how encouraged he feels. The councillor who had more than enough robust debate on the doorstep is bucked, ready to face as much robust debate as the world can throw at her. Off they go, boundless optimism and Lembit's harmonica ringing in their ears.