THE first of the annual party conferences in Britain ended on a rather dispiriting note for those who had hoped the Liberal Democrats would establish their credentials as a third party which could play an important moderating role in the event of a hung-parliament after next year's election.

Nick Clegg, the party's leader, made a pre-conference appeal to disillusioned Labour voters to join the LibDems rather than drift to the Conservatives or simply opt-out. But this idea somehow got lost in the course of the Conference; perhaps the general disappointment felt over Vince Cable's eagerly awaited speech on fiscal policy was the reason, or it may have been the evidence of internal divisions on other policy issues that seemed to take Nick Clegg by surprise.

In the election of 2005 the Liberal Democrats gained support by their opposition to the Iraq War but have been unable to capitalise on public disquiet over Afghanistan in the same way. This is surprising given that the party's former leader Paddy Ashdown has far and away the clearest mind of any politician on this complex problem and was heard on the subject during the conference. Mr Clegg may have regained some lost ground in his final speech but did not carry conviction in his insistence that wanting to be prime minister is a realistic ambition.