In May Britain’s political sands shifted dramatically and members of the three main parties can be forgiven for appearing a trifle unsteady as they attempt to navigate an unfamiliar landscape. Conference season provides a platform for their anxieties and gives leaders, who have shaped this new environment, a chance to help their followers find their feet.
Labour is engaged in a high profile contest to crown a leader, of course, and looks set to draw all the wrong lessons from its election defeat. Next weekend the result will be announced and the party’s membership will be asked to galvanise around its chosen Miliband in a very public coronation.
The Conservatives convene in early October and the atmosphere is likely to be less than celebratory, despite the party's return from a long spell in the political wilderness. A growing band of Tories resent the dependence of their government on coalition partners and Lord Ashcroft owns the most high profile finger of blame to point at David Cameron.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats provide the season’s first conference, meeting in Liverpool this week (PDF). And there is ample evidence to suggest that the party faithful are more disorientated than any other group by the new dispensation.
Dissent has been fairly muted so far, but there are rumblings and high profile figures, if they were so minded, could provide a rallying point. Former leader, Charles Kennedy, has made no secret of his scepticism about early cuts to the deficit, telling activists this weekend that he remains ’an old Keynesian’.
So far Lord Ashdown remains onside, claiming today that a delay in Trident shows that Lib Dems are having an influence in government. But he is another influential former leader Nick Clegg will be eager to avoid aggravating. After all, Ashdown did once consider joining a cabinet headed by Gordon Brown.
Along with power comes responsibility and it is true that, in the short-term, doing the responsible thing can bring unpopularity. But allowing its ambitions to be shaped by political realities can help the Lib Dems grow up as a party.
Ignoring Labour deficit deniers like Ed Balls, and trade unions, whom Danny Alexander correctly identifies as ’spoiling for a fight’, the coalition is on the right side of the financial debate. Nick Clegg is correct when he claims that the scale of cuts and the damage they will inflict are being exaggerated for political gain.
As coalition partners the Liberal Democrats must stand to one side and let the scare-mongers scare-monger. It’s a test of nerve, but it’s the responsible thing to do and, for all the short-term discomfort, it could yet bring its own rewards in the long-term.