“A great big liberal-sized hole has opened up in British politics” – so said former leader Nick Clegg as he was cheered to the rafters by his party’s rank and file in Bournemouth.
Despite the crushing election result, party members are being told there is in fact a great opportunity ahead. They just need to keep the faith.
Faith is not a word normally associated with the Lib Dems – particularly not the religious variety favoured by their new chief evangelist Tim Farron.
But, faced with the evidence of overwhelming rejection by the electorate, the party is desperately looking for reasons to believe.
Some think the election of Jeremy Corbyn brings an easy opportunity to occupy the political centre-ground.
But experienced figures in the party know that the yawning gap between Labour and the Conservatives doesn’t in and of itself bring immediate benefits.
In his rapturously received speech, Clegg made an important admission – that the strategy at the election was flawed.
The approach could be summarised by the party’s campaign ad which said “Look left, look right…vote Lib Dem”. In other words, we’re the best party if you really don’t like the other two.
But that message didn’t give people an inspiring, emotional or positive reason for choosing the Lib Dems.
It wasn’t until the day after the election that Clegg delivered the passionate case for liberalism. His resignation speech was widely acknowledged to be the best of his career. But it came a week or two late.
In Bournemouth it’s been said that the Liberal Democrats’ own leadership contest (conducted with a tiny fraction of the attention that surrounded Labour’s convulsions) was a contest “between head and heart”.
Norman Lamb offered the sensible, low risk approach – a highly respected former minister but hardly someone to set the pulse racing.
Tim Farron was a much riskier choice – no ministerial experience and a reputation for occasionally speaking first and thinking second.
But, the activists in Bournemouth are certain they have the right leader for the right moment.
Whatever his flaws may be, Farron is indefatigable and relentlessly committed to the cause. He’s a grassroots campaigner par excellence.
Liberal Democrats hope that Farron can give them the emotional energy that the Clegg years lacked.
The launch of the party’s “In” campaign for the EU referendum in Bournemouth was an interesting start. Farron said the big mistake with the Better Together campaign for Scotland was that it was constantly trying to make a solid, rational, economic case for the union.
But that allowed the SNP and the “yes” campaign to appeal to the heart and sell the dream.
Farron instinctively gets the need to find an emotional connection with supporters and potential voters.
But the new leader must still decide his strategic priorities. Is he trying to lead a serious party of government, or an influential pressure group?
The feeling in Bournemouth is that the immediate job is getting heard on a few core issues: housing, EU membership, climate change and human rights.
That alone won’t bring a return to government anytime soon.
But party members hope it will begin to answer the question: in 2015 what are the Liberal Democrats actually for?