A week in politics: Secret glee of the Lib Dems

Here’s our summary of the last seven days in British politics – in which the Lib Dems have finally come to terms with being in power.

By Alex Stevenson

The Liberal Democrats’ first autumn conference with the party in power for 65 years was always going to an unusual event. The extra security, media presence and unusual presence of genuine government ministers provided novelty, but celebrations in Liverpool appeared muted as the party faced up to its newfound responsibilities – and looming public spending cuts – with a mixture of awe and trepidation. In fact delegates were largely delighted by the turn of recent events, singing their hearts out at the extremely well-attended annual last-night-of-conference glee event.

Having set the tone for the relationship between conference and the government (as distant from each other as they possibly can be) with a defeat for the leadership on free schools and academies, the party found itself brought back down to earth by a sober and calculated leader’s speech. Nick Clegg, all smiles and jokes at receptions and fringe events, became deadly serious as he pleaded with Lib Dems to “hold your nerve” in the face of the unpopularity to come. It seemed fitting that his necessarily downbeat speech came in the middle, rather than at the end, of the week. The honour of cheering Lib Dems up was reserved for business secretary Vince Cable, who expanded his general election attacks on the City to cover the entirety of capitalism in a speech which gave delegates something to be proud of as they headed for home.

The deputy prime minister had departed early from Liverpool to attend a United Nations summit on the millennium development goals, in his most significant outing yet on the international stage. He pledged that Britain would halve deaths from malaria in ten African countries, observed that “democracy cannot be dictated by diktat” – a clear reference to the Iraq war – and had a meeting scheduled with US vice-president Joe Biden. His trip to the States ironically coincided with another British statesman’s, for different reasons. Gordon Brown, whose British political career was ended when Clegg ruled out working with him in a coalition after the general election, began lecturing at Harvard University this week.

After four months of campaigning the Labour leadership election finally came to an end. Polls showed Ed Miliband finally creeping past David Miliband to become the favourite, but the race remained too close to call before the result is announced on Saturday afternoon. Already attention was beginning to focus on the future, as Ed Balls started angling for the shadow chancellor role and questions about whether David Miliband would serve under his brother were raised. The prospect of future campaigns dominated left-wing thoughts by the end of the week, when Ken Livingstone was confirmed as Labour’s candidate to take on Boris Johnson in the 2012 London mayoral election.

Meanwhile stories ahead of the comprehensive spending review, due out on October 20th, kept on coming. Britain kept its AAA rating, but UK public sector borrowing soared to record levels; five government departments were awarded access to the ‘star chamber’ making decisions for the CSR; and a leaked memo revealed the full extent of the coalition’s plans for the ‘bonfire of the quangos’, triggering a Cabinet Office investigation.