I often find that returning to the UK for a rare visit is a rather sobering experience. The difficulties the government faces seem exposed in sharp relief when you have been away for a while.
This trip was a little different.
Yes, it is all to obvious that the physical infrastructure needs investment: but despite potential future problems, Crossrail is being built- and the tunnel portal, close to Paddington station is well underway. Above the ground, Heathrow's new terminal is also now taking shape, and flying over London, the Olympic stadium gleams above the winding river Lea. The giant Shard office building too is nearing completion. The pace of development is visibly quicker than last year, so for the time being at least, London is moving forward. The sense of depression that seemed all pervasive in the summer is also a little lighter.
For the first time in a while, I went to visit a friend who is a Member of Parliament. Indeed, he has become a Liberal Democrat minister in the coalition government. Before I meet him, I talk things over with my Uncle who is a very long serving Lib Dem MP. He reflects that the situation for the party is not beyond recovery, and that behind the scenes, some extraordinary progress is being made. I am sceptical, but I resolve to quiz my friend, who has emerged as one of the key ministers, when we meet later.
It was the day after the Conservatives had split dramatically over the perennial issue of "Europe". The atmosphere in the evening fug of the bars and tea rooms remains excited and it is clearly the leading topic of conversation. The kind of people who call the European Union the "EUSSR"- which as a resident of a country formerly occupied by the USSR, I find incredibly insulting and puerile- are much in evidence. Yet as my friend points out, the "antis" lost, and more to the point, the Prime Minister has even more reasons to be grateful to the Lib Dems and irritated with his Tory colleagues.
It is, he points out, something of a distraction anyway: there is a crisis in the Euro, but there is nothing positively specific that the "antis" can put forward: it is still a visceral and rather inchoate rage. Meanwhile, the Minister makes a key point:
"This is the first time since the 1920's that Liberal ministers can put their policies into action. We may not get a second chance, indeed the polls tell us that we won't. While the Tories are content to wait until the next election, since they believe that will get a majority, we have no time to waste. The result is that we are enacting far more of our program than they are."
"We can now point to a solid block of genuinely Liberal achievements, particularly increasing the tax free allowance to £10,000, and while we have made mistakes- and how could we not have done, under such difficult circumstances?- we have genuinely worked for the national interest, even when it looks like our party interest will be overwhelmed"
So, far from the Lib Dem ministers being cowed by the dire polls, in fact they seem to have a real fire in their bellies. While it is clear that the local elections in May will probably continue to see a negative trend for the party, at least in Scotland, it strikes me that the Liberal element in the government may yet prove, by working for the country in a fairly selfless way, that they can restore trust in the party.
Certainly, despite the discomfort that Labour caused the Tories in the Euro vote, there is no evidence that Labour themselves believe or even hope that they can break through in 2015, whatever the polls say today.
So, the Liberal Democrats, dismissed as irrelevant or worse, are actually achieving far more than the media is giving them credit for. Despite the problems of the country, I find myself heartened by the political courage of the party's ministers. Morale in the Parliamentary party is good, and as the polls show a slight improvement in the still dire standing of the Liberal Democrats, I find myself wondering whether the party, far from being punished in 2015, might not actually end up being rewarded for at least trying to do the right thing, in the face of near-Universal derision and contempt.