The last couple of weeks have strained many of the fault lines in the Coalition that up to now have been more or less papered over. As a party we signed up to a Coalition Agreement that presumably most members could live with (myself excluded of course!) - but a Coalition Agreement in retrospect which was more at fault for what it didn't say than what it did.
So we have had the unedifying spectacle for the last 15 months of our much loved parliamentarians tying themselves in knots to be able to justify their support for Tory policies that stick in the gullet of any self respecting Liberal Democrat - most notably the suicidal support for tuition fees. But up to now most of the issues which have resulted in Lib Dems voting against their consciences, could be seen as of more concern to social liberals and while we may make up the majority of the wider party, as David Laws has pointed out, it is the Orange Bookers who are by far the majority amongst our ministers.
However, now the political ground is shifting - in the wake of the riots our Tory partners are hitting at the heart of what it means to be a Liberal Democrat. Yes, we may have different opinions on economic and social issues, but what absolutely binds us together as a party is our commitment to those liberal values of freedom, civil liberties, equality, human rights, fairness and justice. And it is those values that are under attack as we speak.
So the next few months I guess will be dominated by the political fallout from the riots, Cameron's promise that if it moves he will review it, politicians of all hues competing for the title of "Tough Cookie". Never before has it been more important to stand up for our shared values, however difficult that may be.
There has been a debate recently in the party about which of our policies we should shout about and which we should whisper. Strange as it may seem (:-)) I am in the shout about everything school of thought! When we whisper about the issues we care passionately about but we know don't play well with the likes of the Daily Mail, for example immigration and knee jerk reactions to rioting, all we do is cede the ground to our opponents. When we let the likes of Melanie Phillips blame the "liberal intelligentsia" without pointing her to the facts, we cede the ground. When we try to frame our narrative in the language that talks rough and tough, illiberal, authoritarian counter productive nonsense, we cede the ground.
So I find myself in total agreement with Chris Bowers on Dale & Co arguing that Nick Clegg now has a golden opportunity to promote a truly liberal response to the riots through, amongst other things, using restorative justice to confront the rioters with the consequences of their behaviour. We know that it works, for example in Northern Ireland the combined reoffending rate for youth conferencing in 2006 was 37.7% compared to 70.7% for custodial sentences (see the Prison Reform Trust's excellent report "Making Amends - Restorative Justice in Northern Ireland"). And alongside that, as Chris Bowers has argued, Nick's genuine concern for children and families I trust will mean he takes a far more considered long term view about what needs to happen.
Last year when I raised with Nick my concern about the impact of the cuts on young people during The Conference Question Time, he invited me to hold his feet to the fire if he didn't deliver. Well, he now has an opportunity to put his money where his mouth is - I have everything crossed in optimistic expectation that he will - with the hot coals in reserve if he doesn't!