I would be lying if I said that it was all was sweetness and light amongst the Liberal Democrats. There are a number of people who could not support the Conservatives for any reason or at any price: several of them have left the party. There are a number of people who did not understand that the Liberal Democrats meant what they said about how the virtues of coalition and partnership in government could make a transformation to our political system. Equally, and more understandably, there are a number of true Liberal Democrats who regard the coalition as either a strategic or a tactical mistake. This last group may have a point, even if the first two groups can be safely ignored, if only for now. I can understand Nich Starling being disappointed and fearful for the future of the party, but if we are genuinely going to construct a new politics then we are going to have to give a certain amount of trust in order to be trusted.
It is a risk, but given the state of the country and the mathematics in the House of Commons, we must at least dare to take such a risk- for the benefits of more Liberal policies and a more open politics are significant- even necessary- advantages in our struggle to repair the damage to the British economy and society that has been left by Labour. If the Conservatives betray their word, it will be a public betrayal and they may be forced to take the consequences just as much as the Liberal Democrats would were we to fail to live up to the responsibilities given to us in government.
As I think the special conference will show: the party is at least 90% behind the leadership it its sincere attempts to promote the Liberal changes we believe in through this new coalition. In my view, the esteemed Lord Tebbit apart, I suspect that a good third of the Conservatives are actually in shocked denial about what has happened to them. That is a number that means that David Cameron has also has little choice: he too has been forced to take a risk, and if the coalition were to fall, he would certainly be swept away in the aftermath. As it stands, the coalition is a Mexican stand off: neither side can now shoot the other, for fear of being shot in return, yet, for the time being, neither side will relinquish its weapons. The media will -as usual- be trying to create the usual drama and conflict- but even still, I noticed the Daily Telegraph was able to find only a very few Liberal Democrat malcontents. For the time being, the party is prepared to give more than the 20 minute attention span of Sky News to consider the coalition for what it is. So, to my surprise, is Lord Tebbit.
So before some in my party make a fateful decision to leave, I ask them to consider this: we have always said we believed in working with any party in the National Interest. There was neither the means nor the will to construct a stable coalition in any other way. The British political system will continue to get more pluralist, not least through reform that we ourselves can now enact, not just of the House of Commons but also the House of Lords and local government- including more proportional systems than AV (which may in any event become simply a way mark on the road to STV anyway: the way you vote is the same, listing candidates in order of preference, it is only the number of candidates elected that is different: one under AV, more than one under STV). If we have to fight a referendum, so be it: I am a democrat and I am not afraid of putting the policies and principles I believe in to the people in a fair vote. I think we may be surprised to find not only Labour supporters, but also many Conservatives on our side of the referendum campaign.
But there is more: the Liberal Democrats will now be able to promote such policies of fairness as the £10,000 income tax threshold from within the government. While we must accept that the Conservatives have won the great offices of state, nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats can legitimately say to their voters- for the first time- that every single Liberal Democrat vote has helped the party to put at least some of the economic, social and political agenda that they voted for into practice. It is worth noting that such Conservative mistakes, such as the raising of IHT will not now be enacted, while the likelihood of Parliamentary time being granted to waste further hot air on the hunting issue is now also very small.
We have always said that we wanted a positive agenda, so to retreat into small political ghettos because "We hate the Tories" is the antithesis of our real agenda and even more so our real interests and the interests of our country. It is time for us to act with maturity and to accept both the opportunities and the limitations of power. If we can make this government work, then the opportunity to demonstrate by real actions the virtues of our Liberal ideology is extremely significant. It can set out a whole new agenda and structure for politics in the United Kingdom.
I think we should be confident in our own values and if we are, then the absurd lazy stereotypes of bearded, muesli-chomping sandal wearers can finally be laid to rest. We have a party of openness, tolerance, decency and intelligence. I don't think those virtues should be unsullied by power, indeed I think without those virtues in government, the future of our country is bleak indeed. So, if I do not welcome this coalition with euphoria, I welcome it in a spirit of practical politics: we now have a real job to do. Let us roll up our sleeves and go to work to put Liberal principles into practice and Liberal policies into government.