The Liberal Democrat party conference still plays an important role in deciding how the party is run and what its policies are, even as the PR role of the conferences has grown in importance and with the emergence of new policy making centres of power now that the party is in government.
So the details of the motions tabled for debate at the forthcoming Spring conference in Sheffield (11-13 March) matter and will (or should) be poured over in detail by many outside the party.
Here, however, is a quick whistlestop guide to the likely conference controversy hotspots:
Saturday 10:15am: conference debates the Disability Living Allowance – mobility component, which is one of the areas of proposed welfare reform that has generated much controversy between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in the coalition.
Saturday, 10:45am: a long motion supporting the NHS reforms, including the words, "Conference welcomes the vision for the NHS set out in the Government’s White Paper". Will conference representatives be happy to vote for that without at least the including of a "But…"?
Saturday, 14:20pm: ready your tabloid headlines for in amongst a motion on youth justice is a proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales to 14. Though widely supported by those involved in both justice and youth issues across the political spectrum, it is not hard to see how an unfriendly tabloid newspaper might describe this proposal.
Sunday, 09:50am: a long motion on the party’s strategy. As one senior Liberal Democrat peer recently said to me, "I can’t remember one party strategy motion that has ever had an impact on the party’s strategy". However, their details can sometimes have an impact (as with the creation of the triple-lock) and this one offers up some words on the media’s favourite topic of conversation – pacts and deals: "The Liberal Democrats will fight the next general election in Great Britain as an independent party without any pacts or agreements with any other party … The Liberal Democrats intend to enter the next general election campaign with no preference for potential future coalition partners".
Sunday, 11:45am: Nick Clegg’s speech to party conference. He’s a good speech-maker and he’s bound to get a standing ovation. But beyond that his choice of topics, which parts the audience clap at and how keen the ovation is will reveal a lot about his leadership and the party.
Still to come are all the amendments and the emergency motions, and of course an apparently banal detail wording of a motion may suddenly leap to prominence in the pressurised atmosphere of conference or if that old political standby, events dear boy, events, intrudes.