Cablegate: (C/Nf) Lib Dem Conference: Mostly More of the Same

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P 251529Z SEP 09

C O N F I D E N T I A L LONDON 002229


E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/24/2019

Classified By: Political Minister Counselor Greg Berry,
reasons 1.4 (b/d).

1. (C/NF) Summary. The Liberal Democrats' quiet September 20 - 23 conference received mixed reviews in the UK media and did little to tell voters why they should vote Lib Dem. Leader Nick Clegg's call for "savage" cuts in public spending and Deputy Leader Vince Cable's announcement of an uncoordinated policy on "mansion" taxing provoked a mild backlash by the rank-and-file and raised questions about how well the party's policies are thought-through. A foreign policy resolution on Afghanistan was taken by some media outfits to be a call for withdrawal, but Foreign Affairs Spokesman Ed Davey confirmed it was meant to call for a new strategy with more robust political, diplomatic, and development strands -- in the sure knowledge that public support for the UK's current policy in Afghanistan is eroding rapidly. Senior Lib Dem MPs said the difficulty with Afghanistan is the lack of a narrative to explain how the conflict affects the daily lives of their constituents. Outside the conference hall, senior party leaders suggested that a hung parliament is likely after the next general elections, requiring the (unprecedented in peace-time) formation of a minority government. While not commenting on it publicly, the Lib Dem leadership is coalition war gaming to maximize any opportunities for the party to increase its influence after the next elections, even if it decreases its total number of seats. End summary.

The Next Elections and Coalition War Gaming -------------------------------------------

2. (C/NF) Senior Liberal Democrat leaders - including former leader Sir Menzies Campbell, Defense Spokesman Nick Harvey, Development Spokesman Michael Moore, and Lord's Foreign and Defense Spokesman Lord William Wallace of Saltaire - told the DCM on the margins of the Lib Dem's September 20 - 23 conference that a hung parliament is a likely outcome of the next elections. Harvey said that an outright Conservative victory is far from certain. A clear Conservative majority would require 127 additional seats, which is almost unprecedented, especially at a time when the UK public is uninspired by and mistrustful of the political class. In the Lib Dems' view, the Tories might plausibly be expected to win as many as 70 additional seats, but 127 would require taking seats off the Scottish National Party in Scotland, where the Conservatives currently have only one seat, and leapfrogging from third position in the North of England. In a similar electoral cycle in 1997, Tony Blair polled in excess of 50 percent in the run-up to his landslide victory, but on election day only captured 40 percent at the polls. Harvey questioned how the Conservatives could do better than Labour under Tony Blair in 1997, given the Tories' current polling of around 40 percent. In addition, given the make-up of the constituencies the Tories are targeting, they require more votes per seat than the mostly urban Labour constituencies do.

3. (C/NF) Campbell said he foresaw a minority government based on the results of the next elections, which must be held before June 3, 2010. Whichever party wins the most seats, though failing to have an outright parliamentary majority, would be asked to try to form a government. Without a majority in Parliament, such a government would be weak, depending on other parties to help get difficult legislation through Parliament; it would likely be forced to put off difficult decisions for fear of dropping in the polls. Campbell said he believes a minority government could only survive for 18 - 24 months, especially since Cameron will "lust for a strong mandate." Plus, the economic climate will force the next Parliament to make some difficult decisions on the government's financial situation.

4. (C/NF) Declaring the Lib Dems "don't want to hang with anyone" in a hung parliament, Harvey said a "polite coalition," similar to the arrangements in the Scottish or Canadian Parliaments, was possible, but that a formal Lib Dem-Labour or Lib Dem-Conservative coalition was much less likely.

Afghanistan and Pakistan ------------------------

5. (C/NF) The conference adopted a resolution on the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which the right-leaning media houses trumpeted as a call for a withdraw of UK forces. However, Foreign Affairs Spokesman Ed Davey explained to Political MinCouns that the Lib Dems are calling not for an immediate withdrawal, but rather for a new strategy that recognizes that military action is essential but not sufficient to win in Afghanistan. There needs to be a greater focus on politics, diplomacy, and development. Moore said separately that public support for the UK's deployment in Afghanistan is declining because "there isn't a narrative to explain what we are doing and how it affects our constituents." He asserted quick results are needed to re-gain public support.

6. (C/NF) Separately, the Lib Dems also called for the review of the exchange of notes between the U.S. and UK that allows for U.S. military institutions on Diego Garcia. Foreign Affairs Researcher Ben Jones said the Lib Dems do not object to the presence of a U.S. military facility, but think that a human rights clause should be added to the agreement. Jones noted that there is a provision in British law that allows the Foreign Secretary to extend the European Convention on Human Rights to the UK's overseas territories.

Domestic Policy ---------------

7. (C/NF) On the domestic front, Leader Nick Clegg's call for "savage" cuts in public spending and Deputy Leader Vince Cable's announcement of an uncoordinated policy on "mansion" taxing provoked a mild backlash by the rank-and-file and raised questions about how well the party's policies are thought-through. Clegg's keynote speech closing the conference described Labour as "dying on its feet" and the Tories as "hollow." He said he wants to be the first Prime Minister to "be on the side of the weak against the powerful" and argued that the Lib Dems are ready to govern, calling on delegates to "imagine a Lib Dem cabinet."

Comment -------

8. (C/NF) Clegg's final message that the party is ready to govern sounded "dull," as one political analyst put it, after an unfocused conference failed to provide a compelling argument for the UK public to vote Lib Dem. Beyond Clegg, the senior Lib Dem leadership seems to be looking for ways for the party to increase its influence in what they calculate to be the likely eventuality of a hung parliament after the next elections, even if the Lib Dems end up with fewer seats in the Commons. End comment. Visit London's Classified Website: XXXXXXXXXXXX

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