Ian Swanson: Moving up in world means party going back to basics

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IF it wasn’t sex allegations against the guru who masterminded so many of their by-election triumphs, it was the driving points scandal engulfing the man who narrowly missed out on being leader.

There has always been something to keep the Liberal Democrats in the headlines recently.

The party is hoping the two inquiries it has launched into the claims against Lord Rennard, along with the jailing of Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce, will draw a line under some of the bad publicity – at least for now.

But as Scottish Lib Dems gather in Dundee for their spring conference, which starts tomorrow, leader Willie Rennie may still feel he has been cast in the role of Atlas, carrying the weight of the world on his ­shoulders.

After all, he heads a party in Scotland whose Westminster MPs are in bed with the Tories – even more unpopular north of the Border than elsewhere – and responsible through that coalition for draconian measures like bedroom tax and welfare cuts, as well as presiding over the lack of economic ­recovery.

Last month’s Eastleigh by-election shows it is possible for Lib Dems to hold on to their seats against the odds. But it does not mean it is guaranteed. And in Scotland, many of the party’s former strongholds have already been lost. Reduced from 16 MSPs to just five and going from the largest group at Edinburgh City Chambers to a party of just three councillors, the Lib Dems – who spent the first eight years of devolution in government – have paid a heavy price for the UK coalition.

The party’s Scottish MEP George Lyon faces a tough battle to get re-elected to the European Parliament next year.

An insider claims: “I think the party has probably reached as far down the trough of despair as I can see it going. I’m not going to pretend we’ll be marching back into Bute House any time soon, but the sense of despair is not quite as bad as it was.”

He says a lot of that is down to Willie Rennie – a man perhaps well-suited to the role of Atlas, having been runner-up in the Scottish Coal-Carrying championship, a 1km race along the high street in his home town of Kelty, in Fife, carrying a 50kg sack of coal.

“If Willie was not leader, I’m not sure there would be a party to gather this weekend,” says the insider. “He has a phenomenal appetite for engaging with the party, but he is a street fighter – and there’s not many of them in the Lib Dems.”

Mr Rennie’s robust performances at First Minister’s Questions have won him respect from MSPs in other parties and helped the Lib Dems get more attention than their numbers might merit. But having to defend UK coalition policies is not a vote-winner.

The key objective for the Lib Dems now is to emphasise the areas where they differ from the Tories ahead of the next elections. When Nick Clegg addresses the conference tomorrow, delegates want to hear how he plans to do that.

A senior source says: “People will be looking for some sort of assurance from Nick that the distinctive Lib Dem identity will come to the surface and be much more visible well before the next election.

“Otherwise we will be washed away in a tide of Tory propaganda.”

The source says the only way the party is going to see any kind of recovery is to go back to basics. “In places like Edinburgh West, where we used to have not just the MP, but also the MSP and most of the councillors, what will save us is not defending the coalition, it’s the local campaigning work which built the party up 20 or 30 years ago.

“But it won’t be easy. The party has taken a huge dent in terms of money and activists.”

Behind the smiles and upbeat speeches this weekend, the party knows it has a hard road ahead.