Sketch: Hughes conference speech

Simon Hughes turns the Liberal Democrats over, tickles them and starts quoting Karl Marx.

By Ian Dunt

Where Nick Clegg challenges, Simon Hughes comforts. The party leader spent yesterday trying to convince his party that he had taken the right decisions in their name. He mostly succeeded in that, although not in a sufficiently convincing way to secure his survival next year. Today, it was deputy leader Simon Hughes’ turn. Hughes is a model leftist Lib Dem, and Clegg backed him for the deputy leadership for very specific and sensible reasons. He makes the grassroots feel represented, and he provides a distinct Lib Dem voice in the media.

It’s a role he has approached with gusto. If you throw something at a news channel, it’s liable to hit his face. He’s everywhere. He is to 2010 what Vince Cable was to 2009. Unfortunately, he comes across much better in front of a TV camera than he does on a platform. On stage, his gestures seem overexcited and his intonation a little bleating for my tastes, which admittedly have never been up to much. They loved him anyway, of course, because he rubs them where they like to be rubbed: Trident, tuition fees, bankers’ bonuses and civil liberties.

“I have been told that this is the first time ever that two particular national papers have sent their senior political editor to a Liberal Democrat conference,” he said, somewhat creepily.

“Hello – I can see you. We know who you are. You are particularly welcome.” There was something about the way he said particularly that I really didn’t like, like raisins in a salad. Fine usually; but not here. Not like this.

The metaphors have plagued the Lib Dem conference since it began. Most of them have been Hughes’ fault. Yesterday he said the coalition was a civil partnership, not a marriage, and spoke of the distant cousins in rural seats who were opposed to it. I thought that was faintly clever, but I am quite susceptible to metaphors. Today he evolved to a football analogy and I had to draw a line. “When you move from the touchline to the pitch, there is a risk you may get some knocks and pick up a few bruises – but on the touchline you never get the chance to change the game,” he said. Something in me shivered horribly. “Now that we are in the game, one thing that we can say with absolute certainty is that from now we will not be ignored.”

I do wish the Lib Dems would stop going on about how people have stopped ignoring them. It’s the worst possible thing to say when people have stopped ignoring you, not least of all because it’s very boring. They’d be much wiser to carry on as they were before, granting gold fish human rights and the like. Anyway, that’s just one side of the story. Half of the conversations I’ve overheard at conference had Lib Dems complaining about how many “suits” had suddenly appeared.

Hughes capped off the speech with a paraphrased quote from Karl Marx: ‘Men make their own histories but not in circumstances of their own choosing’. It’s probably the best quote available to a Lib Dem in his position to use in a conference speech at this precise moment in time. I quietly smacked myself around for not using it myself.

Comforting perhaps, but true. It’s the kind of thing they need to hear right now.