19/09/2011 Today at Conference


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19/09/2011

Andrew Neil presents highlights of the Liberal Democrats' annual conference in Birmingham.


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Evening all. Welcome to our first Today at Conference of the 2011

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party conference season. We're in Birmingham with the Lib Dems

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battered and bruised from those terrible May local election results,

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the loss of the AV referendum, remember that? And flat lining in

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the polls at around 11%. But the Lib Dems are in a chipper mood.

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They insist there's still all to play for as part of a Tory-led

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coalition. But that was before they heard from Business Secretary,

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Vince Cable, who delivered a speech laden with economic gloom and doom.

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Here are the highlights. We now face a crisis that is the

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economic equivalent of war and this is not a time for business as usual

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or politics as usual. The financial crisis is still with us. It never

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went away. We can now see that recovery has stalled in the United

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States and the position in the eurozone is, well, dire. But it's

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wishful thinking to imagine that we have a healthy economy which has

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somehow been infected by a dangerous foreign virus, because

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many of our problems are home grown. Gordon Brown regularly advised the

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rest of the world to follow his British model of growth, but the

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model was flawed. It led to the highest level of household debt in

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relation to income in the world. It produced a dangerously inflated

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property bubble. It encouraged bloated banking, while

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manufacturing declined at an unprecedented rate. And then they

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socialised the cost of the crash through a massive budget deficit,

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the biggest of any major economy. His disciple, Ed balds, has, well

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sort of, apologised -- Ed Balls. What this period of crisis should

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have taught us, above all, is humility. And humility in politics

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means accepting that one party doesn't have all the answers.

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Recognising that working in partnership is progress, not

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treachery. And it has been hard. It's required

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courage from our party to with stand the tribalism, which is

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British politics at its worst. It's not been possible for the party to

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get its own way on everything. I mean, I regret this year that we

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didn't secure tighter control on bank pay and bonuses for example. A

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bad message was sent, that unrestrained greed is acceptable.

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We now know where that leads. But we do have very real achievements.

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My team in the business department and I want to acknowledge David

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Willetts and our own and outstanding minister Ed Davies...

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APPLAUSE We've not only made a major

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contribution to deficit reduction, but we're now helping recovery. We

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have greatly expanded apprenticeships giving respect and

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recognition to the 60% of young people who do not pursue academic

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study in universities. We protected our science budget and we've

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launched a chain of technology innovation centres promoting the

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technologies of the future. Then after a generation of manufacturing

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decline, we brought jobs back to Britain in steel at Redcar, in

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motor vehicle supply chains, electric vehicles and in aerospace

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through Rolls Royce and Airbus. This morning, Jaguar Land Rover

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announced that they're to build a new engine plant in the West

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Midlands, a massive boost for British manufacturing and for this

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That's what I mean by a business recovery. Cars not casinos.

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APPLAUSE The truth is that financial

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discipline is not ideological, it's a necessary condition for effective

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Government. I see us following in the footsteps of Roy Jenkins in

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post-war Britain and abroad, the Canadian liberals, Clinton

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Democrats in the United States, because they understood, unlike

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today's Labour Party, that the progressive agenda of centre-left

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parties cannot be delivered by bankrupt governments.

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I think most of the British public do get it. But there are

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politicians on both left and right who don't. And some of them believe

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governments, like Father Christmas, they draw up lists of tax cuts and

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giveaways and they assume that Santa Claus will pop down the

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chimney and leave presents under the tree. This is childish fantasy.

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Some of them, for example, believe that if taxes on the wealthy are

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cut, new revenue will miraculously appear. I think the reasoning is

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something like this: All those British billionaires, who

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demonstrate their patriotism by hiding from the taxman in Monaco or

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some Caribbean island will come rushing back to pay more tax at a

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lower rate. I'm afraid my view about this is "pull the other one".

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Banks offered a one-way bail. If they gambled and win, they fill up

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the bonus pool. When they lose, the taxpayer pays. And the Independent

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Banking Commission, the Vicers commission, provides a means to

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stop this dangerous nonsense. The commission's key findings, which

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are to separate retail and casino banking, must be put in place.

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Legislation will start soon and it will be completed within this

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Parliament. APPLAUSE

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And if there were any doubts about the need for radical reform, the

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UBS rogue trader has dispeld them. We simply cannot have rogue

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institutions exposing taxpayers to the risk of exploding financial

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weapon s of mass destruction. People accept capitalism, but what

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they want is responsible cappism. - - Capitalism. As for irresponsible

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capitalism, some of you may have noticed that a big media company

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has recently had a spot of bother. I think you know who I am referring

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LAUGHTER What I want to do is strengthen the

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best of British business. I've taken two initiatives in particular.

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I've asked Professor Jon Kay, together with Sir John Rose, the

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former boss of Rolls Royce, whose company embodies responsible

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capitalism, its commitment to long- term investment, training, I've

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asked them to look at how we make our stock markets and institutional

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investors get out of the short-term, speculative mind set. I'm

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separately consulting on how best to tackle the escalation of

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executive pay, which in many cases, has lost any connection with the

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value of shares let alone average employee pay.

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APPLAUSE The truth is, there are difficult

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times ahead, that Britain's post- war pattern of ever rising living

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standards has been broken by the financial collapse. I believe we

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can turn the economy round. We will. In the coalition agreement we

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promised to put fairness at the heart of all we do, and as we

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rebuild our broken economy from the rubble, Liberal Democrats know that

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you can't do one without the other. So we must now do both, fairness

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APPLAUSE Vince Cable. Much more low key than

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last year's populist playing to the gallery. His much trailed plan to

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curb executive pay has been widely regarded as a bit of a damp squib.

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He didn't even indulge in this conference's favourite sport, whack

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a Tory. The populist mantle of the party lies on the shoulder of the

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President, Tim Farron. He has said without the Lib Dems this

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Government would be "an absolute nightmare.". I asked Energy

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Secretary, Chris Huhne, if he agreed. It would be much less

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interesting for me and probably for Tim, if there weren't Lib Dem

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ministers. But a nightmare? I think that the political balance of the

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Government is a coalition. It's a coalition between the Liberal

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Democrats, who have a very clear, independent stand on a number of

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issues and the Conservatives, who come from a different political

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tradition. We have to compromise. It's very important. I don't think

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there's anything to be ashamed of in compromising. In fact, if we

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hadn't compromised to get us out of the economic problems we had at the

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election, we would be in the same difficulty that the President and

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Congress are in, in failing to compromise over the budget and

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losing their triple-A credit rating. The Financial Times this morning

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has done calculations using the same mothodology of the Government

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has discovered that the structural deficit, the bit that doesn't

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disappear with economic growth is �12 billion higher than the

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Government calculated. Financial Times is a journalistic

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organisation and not... We know that. Not a well established and

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reputable economic organisation. Take the IMF, the OECD, they both

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do serious calculations of of the structural balance. They both is

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slightly different mothodology to the Treasury. That's more likely -

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So is the FT wrong? I have no idea. One thing that the Government

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should not do, given that we've put in place a framework that has an

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office of budget responsibility, which is an independent body with a

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lot of resources. But they've used the OBR's mechanism to calculate

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this. Are you saying the FT on such matters is not athoritative?

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They're not the final word. didn't say that. But it has

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authority. One of the things that we're clearly going to see Robert

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Chote, the director of the office of budget responsibility, will hold

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forth on these matters. That's the appropriate body for putting

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forward, if there is a problem of this sort to the Government. If the

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OBR, as the independent body under statute that is charged with coming

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up with this analysis, if they find a problem, we will respond to it.

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If there is a problem, if the FT's calculations are right and we'll

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find out in the days ahead from the OBR, if there is a �12 billion or

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so bigger structural deficit, will we have to cut more? It is

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absolutely clear that the Government is committed to ensuring

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that we have a sustainable structural current balance. That's

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an absolutely key commitment. It is what has got us out of the danger

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zone that we were in immediately after the election. We had that big

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Greek crisis the zai after the general election. We've had a

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number of countries falling into economic crisis since then, even

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though they have smaller budget deficits than we do. We have been

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able to get out of the danger zone precisely because of our commitment

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to credible fiscal programme. still not clear if you have to cut

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more? Neither am I, because it will depend on what the recommendations

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are. That's the appropriate way to do it. It's not reacting to what

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appears in the papers. Very good investment it's proved for them.

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Chris Huhne. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg doesn't give his annual

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address to the party faithful until Wednesday afternoon. He took to the

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stage today for a Q&A session. It was a pretty low-key affair. If

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delegates have reservation abouts being in bed with the Tories, and

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many do, they kept that largely to themselves. But they do worry,

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given the poll ratings, if the situation is terminal. The first

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question caught the mood, how account party regain the trust of

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I don't think in the coalition government you will ever win people

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back who regard any compromise as treachery, any compromise as

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betrayal, any compromise as a U- turn. I think there are some people

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out there who become, curiously enough, more shrill and more tribal

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rather than less. I kind of thing, we will never persuade them. You

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either believe that Clarissa's some can be good in politics, you either

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believe that we have to listen to the British people and they said

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very clearly that no one deserved a majority. I'd love to be in the

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Liberal Democrat government, I would love to be Prime Minister but

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people have to vote for a Liberal Democrat government and they didn't.

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We have to explain over and over again, in politics, as in life,

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there is nothing wrong in principle saying we cannot do everything we

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want so we have to compromise. I think we have to constantly,

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constantly, constantly tell our side of the story. If we don't tell

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our side of the story, very many people will not.

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Perfect satisfaction with that answer. Does anyone else want to

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ask a supplementary? Heavens, what docility! It is like a North Korean

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conference meeting. Are a lot of people out there are feeling pain

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because of things the you have had to do as part of the government. Do

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you think it would help if you said a bit more, we feel your pain, we

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did not want to do some of these things, the situation wherein has

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forced us into it? I say over and over again, I did not get into

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politics to make cuts. Of course not. None of us did. Do I like the

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decisions were having to take? Of course not. It is bizarre to relish

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having to make very dramatic savings in public spending. That is

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where we cannot repeat enough that there is nothing fair or

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progressive or good in simply shrugging our shoulders, which

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seems to be the message from Ed Miliband and Ed Balls and saying,

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it is all a bit too difficult to balance the books, it is too

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difficult to pay off the debts, we will at the next generation do it.

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It is a bit like Miriam and myself saying I cannot be bothered to pay

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our credit card bills, we will get our three little children to pay it

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off instead. There is nothing fair about that. There is nothing good,

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or progressive or liberal, or fair in letting bond traders let this

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country be pushed from pillar to post. You cannot do anything good

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if you have no control of your own destiny. Given that the economy is

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at best flat lining and may even be in recession, if we cannot have

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Plan B, can we at least have a plan a start with some investment and

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infrastructure and a Obama style job-creation programme? The first

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thing, on the Obama package, it is worth remembering this, quite a lot

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of the Obama package is stuff we do automatically any weight in Europe.

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You bet the other bit of it is to make sure that we invest in things

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which not only help us in the long run, but actually produced jobs

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today. Transport, rail, road, housing, super-fast broadband, the

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kind of things we need as a country anyway because, in so many respects,

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we still have clapped out physical infrastructure compared to many

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other developed economies. When David Cameron said he was relaxed

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about giving friends and neighbours internships, rather than people who

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deserve them solely on merit, were you feeling more hopeless or

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ashamed that you were in coalition with someone who thinks about

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aspiration along those terms? it is quite up to David Cameron how

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he runs his private office. But it is a bit embarrassing. I am the

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leader of the Liberal Democrats, he is leader of the Conservatives. We

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are completely different. I am not going to ask him... He is not going

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to agree with everything I say and I do not agree with everything he

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says, of course. Nadine Dorries complimented you on the influence

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you have over David Cameron. I do not think she thought it was a

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complement. Unintentionally, then. How can we persuade the British

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public than that is -- that that is true. It is not true. The

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Conservatives do not run the government, the Liberal Democrats

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do not run the government. You will get people making shrill claims one

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way or the other. It is a coalition. It is built on compromise. Let me

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say one more general thing on this. We have had a really, really tough

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year. The likes of which many of us could not predict and certainly do

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not want to repeat. We have got to stop beating ourselves up about it.

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We have got to look ahead, not constantly, mournfully look

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backwards. Nick Clegg. It is not quite clear

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the purpose of the Lib Dem Conference when you are in

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coalition. Calls for new policies are likely to be ignored and it

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risks becoming little more than a rally. So, in an effort to be more

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relevant, there were two emergency discussions today on the riots and

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phone hacking. We can no longer accept a media regulator which is

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run by the media for the media. It needs independence from the press

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and independence from the state. We said it last year and we say it

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again today. But there are still some, mostly within the press

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itself, who tried to equate independent regulation with a state

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controlled regime which would undermine press freedom. Let me be

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absolutely clear, the fundamental liberal principles of a free,

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independent and unfettered Fourth Estate, holding power and authority

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to account, are absolutely sacrosanct for Liberal Democrat.

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have a window of opportunity. Lord Justice Levison will report next

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year. I expect the police will finish their investigations in the

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next few months. His scenes in next session of Parliament starting next

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May, there must be a government commitment to implement the

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recommendations of Leavis and and take action then. If we do not take

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action soon, it may be political consensus will dry up and go away.

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When I was the police commander in 2002, and unfortunately the police

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shot someone who was carrying a cigarette lighter in the shape of a

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gun, a peaceful protest about a shooting developed into a riot. The

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police should have known that that was going to happen in Tottenham on

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Saturday night. They should have had and they could have had

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sufficient officers who were suitably trained and equipped on

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hand to deal with that and they should have arrested the

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perpetrators of the rioting at the time, rather than relying on

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closed-circuit television images afterwards.

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A Davies, a Lib Dem minister who works alongside Vince Cable in the

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business department. He has responsibility for both officers

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say he was keen to trumpet a policy the Lib Dems like, the end to the

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closure of local post offices -- Ed Davey. I want the Post Office to

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become the front line of government, national and local. Earlier this

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year, Westminster Council awarded the Post Office a contract for

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services such as parking tickets and permits and other things.

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Westminster councillors are hard- headed people. They did not do it

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for a cheap headline, they did it because the Post Office is great at

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what it does. Westminster is not the only council which is working

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with the Post Office. Sheffield Council have a pilot with it as

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well. And now, I believe we should explore the links between councils

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and post offices even more. Later this month, I will be writing to 25

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councils asking them to join in. If you are one of the people I write

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to, please say aye, yes. There are no guaranteed contracts here. I am

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telling every post office manager there is a business opportunity

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here they can seize. It is not just councils and the government which

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see the Post Office as an attractive partner. Many banks,

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Barclays, co-ops let their customers use the Post Office for

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banking. I'm delighted to tell you that from this current Friday, for

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the first time, NatWest customers will be able to do so as well. In

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fact, just two banks are holding out - HSBC and Santander. Frankly,

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I am really disappointed. Today, I hope that you will join me on

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calling on them to think again and if they don't respond, maybe we

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need another campaign. APPLAUSE. We need to tell these

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banks, they have a responsibility to their customers and local

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communities. If they still don't listen when we have campaigned, I

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hope you will think about switching your account to another bank.

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Davey. He had begun his speech by admitting being in coalition with

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the party he had opposed all his life was not that easy. But he was

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not going to complain about being in power. Earlier in the day I

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spoke to Jeremy Brown, the Foreign Office Minister. I asked him if the

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Tory bashing got his approval. doubt there will be some Lib Dem

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bashing in the margins of the Conservative conference as well so

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I let it wash over me. You're not going to be embarrassed when you

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next bump into your Tory boss at the Foreign Office? No, I don't

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think I will. I have missed some of what you call Tory bashing. Really?

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It has been hard to avoid at this conference. I think all party

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conferences, as long as I have been going to them, have had people

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taking a knock at other parties and all three parties do it and

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probably the public do not respond that well to it but the party

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faithful enjoy it and it raises their spirits. Are you bashing the

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Tories more than Labour? I don't know, maybe. Yes you are. They may

0:26:030:26:07

be concern in some quarters that we do not appear to have lost our

0:26:070:26:11

distinctiveness and maybe people feel there is an audience for

0:26:110:26:15

showing there is -- we are different in spirit but I think it

0:26:150:26:20

is pretty peripheral. The secretary of the 1922 Committee of

0:26:200:26:25

backbenchers, Mark Pritchard, he wants a vote on Britain's

0:26:250:26:29

membership of the European Union. That was in your Lib Dem manifesto

0:26:290:26:34

last year so presumably you are in favour of that? I don't think it is

0:26:340:26:38

anything which is likely to happen any time soon. Mark Pritchard, who

0:26:380:26:43

wino well, and he is a perfectly reasonable MP, I get on well with

0:26:430:26:48

him, but he needs to raise that to be the leader of his own party.

0:26:480:26:53

it was in your manifesto. The European Union has evolved

0:26:530:27:02

significantly after the last vote, the Liberal Democrats remain

0:27:020:27:06

committed to an in out referendum. The we had the courage agreement

0:27:060:27:10

which was forged in the days of the general election and there was no

0:27:100:27:14

commitment to a referendum of Britain's membership of the

0:27:140:27:18

European Union. Should we file this promise in your manifesto alongside

0:27:180:27:23

Trish and fees as not being worth the paper it was written on --

0:27:230:27:29

tuition fees. I would not put it that way. I was born in 1970. We

0:27:290:27:38

have had general elections from the 70s to 2005, no Lib Dem promises

0:27:380:27:42

our manifesto commitments were implemented in any of those

0:27:420:27:47

elections. In 2010, three-quarters of our manifesto commitments were

0:27:470:27:51

implemented which is an amazing achievement. We finished third in

0:27:510:27:56

the general election, or in coalition with the Conservatives in

0:27:560:27:59

the national interest, no party has a mandate to implement its

0:27:590:28:03

manifesto in full, but for the first time in my grandparents a'

0:28:030:28:10

lifetime, we are implementing large sections of our manifesto. People

0:28:100:28:13

have reason to be ecstatic that their vote counts for something and

0:28:130:28:17

the policies which they supporters at the general election are being

0:28:170:28:21

implemented in the government. That is it for today. Here in

0:28:210:28:27

Birmingham, the Lib Dems have yet to come to terms with the potential

0:28:270:28:31

consequences of Vince Cable's grim economic predictions. If they are

0:28:310:28:34

accurate, things could get worse for the party before it gets better,

0:28:340:28:40

if it ever does. Tomorrow, we will be hearing from

0:28:400:28:44

Steve Webb, the Work and Pensions minister, Energy Secretary Chris

0:28:440:28:48

Huhne and the communities minister, Andrew sternal. I will be back of

0:28:480:28:52