Yesterday’s conference speech in the Trident debate was about the best I think I’ve ever seen him. Impassioned, impromptu, impressive and moved the debate on.
As readers will know, I’m not pre-disposed particularly to like Ming, and I wasn’t buying his argument on Trident either. And yet I was impressed by what he said – and it was at about then in the debate I made my mind up that even if the amendment fell, I’d still vote for the unamended paper, as better than nothing.
I’m not sure, however, I buy the theory that it was Ming that swung it. No, that was shadowy strong-arm tactics. Key PPCs got phonecalls from high-ups. Local party chairs (like me) got a lobbying pack we were supposed to give to our conference reps posted out to us, but those on the other side of the argument were denied first the opportunity, then the data list to send the mailing themselves. Lots of the Parliamentary party were brought to wave their voting cards. All of that adds up to more than the 40 votes that swung the argument.
Moving on to today’s keynote speech. A good performance. A good speech – and as I was hearing it, it was setting me thinking along the lines of plenty of good material to plagiarise from it for leaflets. As there always has to be, there was plenty for the audience hearing it there and then, and plenty for audiences beyond.
But I’m still not happy. I’m cross about the need to stage manage the final speech so much. The video montage of Ming was tolerable.
But the pointless engineering of not one but two standing ovations was a bit much. It looked like the entire shadow cabinet were stationed on the front row primed to leap to their feet clapping the minute the leader appears, guilting the rest of us to follow suit. I’m too bloody-minded to join in, but pretty much everyone else did. I thought there were more bolshies than that!
The same deal was repeated at the end of the speech. In fact, if the shadow cabinet hadn’t leapt to their feet cheering, I wouldn’t have known the speech had ended.
It’s now become important that the clapping at the end goes on for a while because the journalists are hiding in the wings with stopwatches to benchmark this year’s claps against last year’s and read some huge significance into changes. (That’s why Charlie was rushed off stage at the last conference, it would somehow be considered embarrassing if we’d clapped more for him than for the leader.)
So to keep us clapping, we now have to watch the leader wander through the crowds, shake hands, kiss Elspeth repeatedly.
It’s all a bit unsavoury, and missing a sort of British reserve. There’s something of a messianic cult about it. We’re the British Liberal Democrats, not some sort of congregation going for spiritual advice. We’re not there to bow down in adulation before Ming, we’re there to hear what he says and decide for ourselves whether or not it’s reasonable. Just the day before, when we were wandering around telling each other it had been an excellent debate, and how other parties would never dare to do that, and so on, we were congratulating ourselves as representatives for being able to think and reason rationally, even if we came out with different answers. Then a day later, it seems we’re all supposed to pretend we’ve been struck with some sort of Mingmania and the man can do no wrong. I don’t like it, and I would be surprised if Ming likes it. He has a deserved reputation as an elder statesman, and we don’t need to reinvent him as some sort of snakeoil salesman who needs 2,200 Lib Dems to cheer him out of the room.