Activists warn Clegg on becoming 'Tories in disguise'

Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Lib Dem councillors from Derby are to lobby Nick Clegg over the future of Bombardier

Now here's a turn-up: Liberal Democrats from the East Midlands have a bit of a spring in their step.

They've arrived in Birmingham for the party's annual conference with a by-election victory up their sleeve. In Nottinghamshire, the party won back a seat on Gedling Council it had lost to Labour only last May.

It's one of the few Lib Dem crumbs of comfort since its meltdown in popular support: 43% of its councillors in the East Midlands lost their seats.

Councillor David Watts is a rare commodity - he's an influential council cabinet member responsible for economic planning and policy, who's also a Liberal Democrat. His Broxtowe Council patch includes much of greater Nottingham's western suburbs.

He's also in coalition; but in his case, with Labour, which is the larger party.

So what this senior Liberal Democrat says about coalition working is worth noting, and he has some pretty strong words for his party leader Nick Clegg.

David Watts comes to Birmingham's International Convention Centre with this message: the party can't afford to be seen as "Tories in disguise".

"I fully understand that coalition politics is a difficult balancing act, but we must now set out to be different from the Conservatives," he told me.

"We can't afford to be seen as Tories in disguise, otherwise we face another collapse in support at the next elections."

'Golden opportunity'

Coalition politics has transformed Liberal Democrat conferences in one very practical way.

There's now a ready-made opportunity for Lib Dem activists to lobby government ministers.

A group of Lib Dem councillors from Derby is to lobby the Business Secretary Vince Cable and the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg over the future of the city's train makers Bombardier.

Derby's Liberal Democrat leader Hilary Jones said: "This conference is a golden opportunity for me and my team to meet government ministers and press home the case for the government to look again at the Bombardier decision."

The Prime Minister has already ruled out revisiting the huge contract for new trains for the Bedford to Brighton Thameslink service. That went to Siemens of Germany, rather than Bombardier in Derby.

Said Cllr Jones: "We want to get the message to our Lib Dem ministers on how strongly the people of Derby feel on this matter.

"It's important the government takes notice of the massive support Bombardier has received not only in Derby but across the country."

The annual party conference season is seen by many as well-orchestrated PR.

But for the party activists themselves, the gathering of the faithful is the ideal opportunity to buttonhole the leadership… and put them on the spot.

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