My first Liberal Democrat conference was this time three years ago. Then still a party of opposition, the feeling at conference was that we were beginning to grow up as a party – considering our policies and their impact far more, creating a program for Government rather than a charter for opposition. Since then the process of growing up has had to accelerate rapidly after entering into coalition with the Conservatives. We have gone from being ignored by the media (and many voters!) to finding ourselves under intense and relentless scrutiny. The feeling at this conference is of a mature party that has weathered the storms of tuition fees and the AV referendum loss, and is now looking to the future.
There is a sense at this conference that we are beginning to shift from justifying the existence of the coalition and our decision to join it, to celebrating our achievements in Government. The rhetoric of a coalition in the national interest is still there, but there is a stronger sense amongst delegates that the coalition is here to stay for the duration of this parliament. If there had ever been a window of opportunity to make our exit, without further damaging our reputation, it feels that that moment has passed.
Inevitably, this means that there will be some difficult and unpalatable decisions in the months to come that will stretch the Liberal Democrats. The impression from this conference is that we are a party that has grown in resilience and is taking itself and its role in Government seriously. We will have plenty to say in 2015 about our role and achievements. Our new challenge, with 75% of our manifesto being implemented by the coalition, will be to prepare a new offer for the electorate in the 2015 General Election.