The main focus of today will be the motion at 10am on the economy, which has been put forward by the party leadership. Highly unusually, Nick Clegg will be closing the debate and, as I mentioned on Friday, I think other high profile Lib Dems will probably be joining in the debate. It’s a bold move because if the motion doesn’t get passed or is substantially amended it will be seen as a snub to the party leadership and Nick Clegg personally.
The Coalition’s deficit reduction strategy has been controversial with some party members and there have been a number of debates on it at previous Liberal Democrat conferences. Expect a repeat of those debates, with many concerns voiced. However, in all the other debates the party supported the current approach in the end – from the Special Conference that endorsed the Coalition Agreement onwards. It is the bedrock on which the Coalition was formed and voting against this motion could put that stability in jeopardy. Even though anything can happen at a Lib Dem Conference, I don’t think we should expect any major upset given how the other debates on this issue have passed.
The other thing to look out for is Cable’s speech after midday. He’s still widely revered by the party and his speeches have previous featured some interesting news lines. His speech on the economy last Wednesday was seen as a big split with the Chancellor, George Osborne. It was written up as if Cable disagreed with Osborne on the recovery. However, as Isabel Hardman at the Spectator pointed out, Cable mainly echoed Osborne’s comments. Journalists will be looking for more signs that Cable is not fully at ease with his deficit-hawk colleagues.
Two more things to keep an eye out for are Nick Clegg’s Q&A on the main stage, though in recent years few controversial questions have been asked, and the set piece debate for the afternoon. In the Q&A. the economy motion may come up as may civil liberty issues such as the Data Communications Bill (or Snooper’s Charter). The set piece debate for the afternoon is on taxes, which will again endorse the Mansion Tax and the raising of the Personal Allowance further. This will mean that people do not pay any Income Tax until they earn more than the National Minimum Wage.
The big issue in that motion will be whether the party sticks with the 45p tax rate or votes to reinstate the 50p tax rate. This debate has been had before, when the party abandoned its support for a 50p top rate in 2006. In that debate, Vince Cable persuaded the party to “choose substance and seriousness over symbols and sentiment”. I think in these different economic circumstances and as a way to show disagreement with the Coalition’s lowering of the 50p rate to 45p, it will vote to reinstate it.
Henk van Klaveren