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David Laws and Jeremy Browne Discuss The Burning Issue: Liberal Or Democrat?

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DAVID LAWS
PA

It is not hard to find evidence of how the Liberal Democrats have changed in government at the party's conference in Birmingham.

And not all the changes are to do with the tighter security measures at the entrance.

Take the annual business dinner, for instance, which took place on Monday evening.

A premium table of ten seats at the dinner, which offered "an unrivalled forum in which to discuss the issues that matter, with the people that matter," would have set you back £5,000.

And a single, bog-standard, 'non-premium' seat alongside the yellow great and good? £350.

Those prices are 40 per cent higher than when they were not in power, as noted by Channel Four's Michael Crick at IEA panel discussion on Monday that featured LibDem MPs David Laws and Jeremy Browne.

And as Laws and Browne admit, if the party wants to charge similar rates for a plate of food and a chat with Chris Fox in the autumn of 2015 it will have to use its time in coalition as an opportunity to define what it stands for - and resist the temptation to become an "internal" opposition obsessed with the Tories.

"When political parties move away from what has been their natural centre of gravity the risk is they return to that centre of gravity if that process is seen to have not been a success," Laws said.

"Are the changes that we've made in our policy and approach over the last few years going to be sustained in the later part of the government, and particularly as we go 2015?" he asked. "I think inevitably that depends not only on the lessons the party learns from this period of time… but also about how successful that process is, and the extent to which we in government manage to use our period not just to sort out the economic mess but to deliver on the programme of social recovery, greater opportunity in education, reform of welfare, which we're so passionate about."

The party has not changed so much that "every time we get into government in the future we're going to want to cut public expenditure by 25 per cent" Laws said. But members had to recognise that they party would now live or die on how far it could claim competence on the economy.

LibDems also face a difficult task in the North, Laws said, where its gains in local government in the Labour years were arguably not based on support for the national party.

"There will undoubtably be areas of the north where (in local government) we picked up easy winnings which were more about Labour unpopularity in government that necessarily the brilliance of everything we were doing in those areas," Laws said.

What Laws is saying is that nationally the LibDems still lack definition. And in the next three or four years, some argue, it will have to decide whether it becomes a Liberal party founded on economic competence and individual responsibility, or returns to positioning itself as a (Social) Democrat party naturally resistant to cuts and greater competition in public services.

For journalists this year's conference has arguably been something of a let down, however, because evidence of this divide between delegates and the party leadership has been fairly scarce.

Indeed even after its disastrous losses in the AV referendum and the local elections in May, and major policy setbacks over student fees and the NHS, the LibDem membership seems fairly steadfast in its support for the coalition.

For Jeremy Browne MP, minister of state at the Foreign Office, that internal stability - if it is sustained - could turn the LibDems from a coalition partner of necessity to a "natural party of government".

"Let's say our coalition partners, the Conservative party, when they gather in two weeks time in Manchester, faced the following set of circumstances. They had been on the losing side on the referendum on AV, they'd done very badly in the local council elections in May, and their party was polling less than half of what it had polled at the general election," Browne asked. "How disciplined do you think the Conservative members would be at that conference in Manchester?"

"There is one party more than any other in Britain today that has all the traits of a natural party of government," he said. "I think that party is the Liberal Democrats."

Those members who are still concerned about the voters that the LibDems have lost, or secretly suspect they may number among them, need to stop looking to the past, Browne said.

"The people who want to feel betrayed by the LibDems in government are going to spot betrayal much quicker than the people who are wiling to be convinced by our competence. It is a longer-term process. We can't just be competent for a week and then say 'job done'. We've been out of government for 70 years."

The implication of Browne and Laws' position is that conference speeches like those by Tim Farron MP, which referred to the Tory's "morally repugnant" tax policy, the "absolute nightmare" that a Tory-only government would have represented and said that when it came to coalition "divorce is inevitable" are not helping the LibDems now, and won't help it come 2015.

For Browne and Laws then the choice would appear to be clear - Liberals, not Democrats.

But whatever the LibDems ultimately decide to become it will not be an easy process - whatever the 2011 conference suggests.

James Forsyth of The Spectator magazine, also on the panel, said those tensions have made it the "most interesting party in British politics".

"In some ways it is far more radical than what Tony Blair attempted with the Labour party, even," Forsyth said. "But - as David Laws said - the danger is that if the opinion polls look bad in 2014 then the prospect of rolling over and having your tummies tickled by Tim Farron and some social democratic red meat could be very appealing to your fellow delegates."

"So I think really the question is whether you wake up to the economic reality is in your own hands."

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