Lib Dem party conferences are often overshadowed by events elsewhere. When we came together in Sheffield in spring 2011, for example, the Fukushima nuclear disaster took place. Jeremy Browne, who was the foreign office minister covering south east Asia at the time, ended up getting more airtime than the entire party conference did.
At my first conference as a press officer, in Bournemouth in 2008, we also had to compete with some pretty big news happening in the real world. One of my tasks one morning was to get up at the crack of dawn and meet Vince Cable in the hotel lobby in order to brief him on the content of the day’s papers and the news that had broken overnight, before walking him to the makeshift studio of the Today Programme.
The thing is, something actually quite significant had happened overnight and by the time I found Vince I hadn’t quite grasped how serious it was. I met Vince in the hotel lobby, newspaper clippings in hand, and stood with him for a few minutes trying to explain.
“So, Vince,” I started, “there is one story that is starting to get a bit of pick up this morning. There’s this American bank called something like Lee-man Brothers, or Lay-man Brothers, I’m not really sure. Anyway, it’s collapsed apparently. I’m not really sure how serious it is but it seems to be getting some of the broadcasters excited.” There followed a pause. I have no doubt whatsoever that Vince Cable thought I must be some kind of idiot, but to his credit he had the good grace not to let on.
“It’s ok,” he said in his gentle, understated manner. “I know a bit about this.”
As it turns out, the collapse of Lehman Brothers was a pretty stonkingly massive story. I had no idea. Vince was fine on Today though.