By Matthew Barrett
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It's the conference season, and the annual gathering of Lib Dems gave senior Libs the opportunity to bash the Conservatives, bash the rich, bash government policies, and bash anything else likely to get a smile out of the downtrodden activists in attendance.
We can review who has moved up or down on the Yellow B**tards League table, compared to our rankings from May.
Chris Huhne: In his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference Chris Huhne joked that he and Vince Cable competed with each other to be the most unpopular member of the Cabinet in the ConHome members' poll. Huhne undersells himself. He's actually been winning the wooden spoon for some time now. Perhaps it's his constant attacks on Conservative ministers or, this week, the 'Tory Right'? Perhaps it was saying Conservatives wanted to cut the 50p tax rate in order to help "their friends in the City"? Perhaps it's his growth-killing green measures? Perhaps it's the whole speeding controversy. Perhaps it's the way he's treated his wife? So many questions but we have few doubts: Huhne is now the top of the Yellow B**tards League Table. We imagine he'll be pleased.
Vince Cable: During his speech to the Birmingham conference, Vince Cable said Tories who want to reform maternity rights are "the ideological descendants of people who sent children up chimneys". This attack aimed at Steve Hilton followed a period in which Cable has been hinting he might quit if he didn't get his way on banking reforms. There is a better side to Mr Cable, however, and his speech on Monday warning of tough economic times was a model of truth-telling that George Osborne should consider emulating.
Tim Farron: Farron is promoted from Division One to the Premier League because of his less-than-subtle positioning for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. He gave Total Politics magazine a hardly-unequivocal denial of his leadership ambitions: "I'm not pretending that I’m keeping my leadership bid quiet just for the right moment. I’m genuinely not sure." Farron's speech at conference was full of anti-Tory remarks, and Farron attacked the government's response to the riots, saying "we stood up against the witless kneejerk populism of the Tories after the riots". To top off Farron's promotion to the top league, he (like Huhne) even managed to drop in a reference to this very site during his conference speech: "If you listen to Nadine Dorries, ConservativeHome and the Daily Mail, then Nick Clegg is leading the government; but when it comes to the NHS, the Bankers and fair taxation, Nick seems to be leading the opposition too!" Matthew Parris was disgusted by Tim Farron's speech in yesterday's Times (£):
"You can see what Tim Farron’s up to. He’s positioning himself for the break-up of the coalition and a deal with Labour to form a new government: a deal he would seek as party leader. I can guess what you may think: that as a coalition sympathiser I see Mr Farron as a threat. The opposite is true. Before this week I did see the Lib Dem president as formidable. But something in that speech — something cheap, something shameless, something wily, something small, something not thoughtful or brave, something crowd-pleasing in a slightly desperate way — breathed a lack of political stature. At some subliminal level I sense that many in his party smelt it too."
Evan Harris: Harris may have been rejected by the sensible voters of Oxford West and Abingdon but he has not learnt any humility. He's never off the TV or radio complaining about parts of the Coalition's agenda. Nick Clegg might well agree with our top ranking for Mr Harris. The Deputy PM thought he had a deal on NHS reforms but Harris is unhappy with the compromise agreed between the Liberal Democrat and Tory leaderships and is threatening to reopen wounds in the months ahead.
Simon Hughes: Hughes, the Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems, was in the Premier League last time but we've relegated him from the Big Four. He's been quieter since he was given the job of delivering fairer access to universities, although the bureaucratic system he's creating suggests he can still be a Premier League problem when he puts his mind to it. We expect Lib Dems to be more mean towards Tories on the eve of their conference and Hughes didn't disappoint. In an interview with last weekend's Observer he called the Conservatives ruthless – especially over the AV campaign – and bashed the government for trying to implement "extreme remedies", for trying to cut the 50p tax rate.
Baroness Shirley Williams: Baroness Williams is still a real headache for the Coalition – not least in her alliance with Evan Harris to scupper the already diluted NHS reforms. But she rebuked Chris Huhne and other Lib Dem MPs for their constant attacks on the Conservatives. “We can’t expect an idealistic, lovely friendship," she told Radio 4, "but one doesn’t need to bash the other side with all the abuse you can find.” How grown up!
Lord Oakeshott: He's been a little bit less visible in recent times so we've moved Matthew Oakeshott down a league but he still remains a disruptive influence behind-the-scenes. 10 Downing Street regards everything Oakeshott says publicly as an early warning of what Cable is plotting privately.
Nick Clegg: Clegg is a tough one to categorise. His bashing of Labour in his big speech was exactly what you'd hope for from a Coalition partner but he's also boasted about his ability to block Conservative policies on Europe, free schools and on the rate of taxation. But we are keeping Clegg in a low league spot because we don't really believe his heart is in the Tory-bashing. Anthony Browne is probably right when he says Clegg's pandering to the Liberal Democrat base is done out of political necessity, rather than genuine conviction.
Andrew George: A rebellious backbencher – although not well-known, he works hard in trying to frustrate Coalition health policy. George led Lib Dem opposition in the Commons to the NHS bill, the Localism Bill, the redistribution of seats legislation, and tuition fees. In more recent times, George challenged the Prime Minister, and the Health Secretary, to debates about the NHS reforms.
Worth a mention: Bob Russell, Paddy Ashdown and Mike Hancock.
Jeremy Browne: Browne, along with David Laws, was wooed by the Conservative leadership prior to last year's election. A free-market, classical liberal, Browne is on board with the deficit reduction programme (indeed, he is apparently very keen on it). He is an opponent of the strategy of putting yellow water between the Lib Dems and the Tories. Unchanged from May.
Danny Alexander: Exceeding all expectations after replacing David Laws and George Osborne's number two, Danny Alexander has been effective at arguing in favour of the deficit reduction strategy.
David Laws: The Conservatives' favourite Liberal Democrat apparently wants to scrap the 50p tax and has said that his party should be the Coalition's motor, not its brake. Let's not forget that Laws is part of the pro-EU, pro-HRA Lib Dem consensus but he's the best of even the Orange Book grouping. Let's hope he returns to government soon.
Steve Webb: Iain Duncan Smith has repeatedly said he couldn't have hoped for a better minister. The secret of Webb's success has been to forget about politics for a season and focus on being an effective minister. His pensions plan may mean he'll become an historic, reforming minister. His sensible comments following the AV referendum result are characteristic of his open-minded approach to Coalition. Unchanged from May.
Brian Paddick: Paddick is a new entry on the league table because he is the Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate for London in 2012, and will inevitably have to contrast himself with Boris. The good news is that his initial attacks have been on Labour's Ken Livingstone.