By Ray Fleming

In 1981 David Steel sent his Liberal party home from its annual Conference with this stirring instruction, “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.” Mr Steel's exhortation did little or nothing to improve his party's performance at the next polls. Now suppose that in two years Nick Clegg will in effect say to his Conference, “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for sharing government”, what effect might it have on the 2015 election?

In his closing speech at this year's Conference in Brighton Mr Clegg spoke about the Liberal Democrats as “a third party of government” -- a new formulation, I think, and one that appears to limit the party's ambition for the near future to the role of the junior partner in government. It might be with the Conservatives again or with Labour but the point is that it would put the LibDems where the action is rather than having to accept indefinitely the role of a sidelined party of protest and impractical idealism.

There is a certain appeal in this idea but of course it depends on the assumption that the two big parties will not in future routinely benefit from the “winner take all” nature of most British elections. It will be interesting to see how Mr Clegg develops this concept, in particular the timing of his break from the Conservatives ahead of the 2015 election.