A time in government presented a chance for a Liberal agenda at the MoJ – that chance has been wasted.
There was a lady at the back of the Liberal Democrat conference who was knitting throughout.
It wasn’t difficult to think of her as the classic tricoteuse – the woman sitting beside the guillotine in revolutionary France. For on the stage were a group of politicians surely fearing their own demise by the time of the next general election.
There was much talk by Lib Dem leadership of differentiating themselves from the Tories and emphasising the part they had played in holding back the Blues.
The trouble is they came across like Top Gear’s Richard Hammond failing to denounce Jeremy Clarkson – if you stand by and say nothing while your senior partner does something wrong, you’re just as culpable.
On law and order, justice minister Simon Hughes found himself in the position of lamenting the ill-effects of policies his party had waved through and continue to support. As Hughes talked of masses of litigants in person, it was difficult not to think of his predecessor Lord McNally struggling in vain in parliament to defend devastating civil legal aid cuts.
When Hughes spoke of the astonishing rarity of successful applications for exceptional funding, it was tempting to ask if the Lib Dems could, perhaps, have done something about it seeing as they were also in government.
Certainly it was refreshing to hear Hughes acknowledge the problems faced with civil justice – although there was a palpable lack of any concrete plan to combat it.
And in fairness to the Lib Dems, there has not been a commitment from any party this conference season to restore a single penny of civil legal aid. That ship, we sadly have to accept, has permanently sailed.
But as Hughes listed some of his unfulfilled ideas on law and order – moving drugs policy to the health department, not taking arrested under-18s to police cells and ending the ban on books being sent into prisons – it was impossible not to think this parliament has been a wasted justice opportunity for the party.
It has been tarred with the legal aid-cutting zeal of its coalition partner and yet failed to implement any progressive and liberal policies – save for fighting off attempts to scrap the Human Rights Act.
If the guillotine falls on this party next May, it will take with it an agenda that could have made a real difference.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter