POLITICS

Looking out over the Channel from the cliffs at Bournemouth this week we have felt an odd sensation. For much of the time, the sea has been utterly tranquil.

Inside the conference centre the Lib Dems have been relatively tranquil too.

Delegates know what the sea cannot:

that dangerous days lie ahead as a result of the attack on New York.

That is not to say that Charles Kennedy's troops have been wholly peaceful, only that their ideas on greater access to Internet porn for teenagers now seem even more irrelevant than before the party cancelled the scheduled debate here as inappropriate in the current climate of crisis.

Myself, I thought the same about their bright-eyed plans to hasten British entry into the euro-zone.

If only, I mused (and not for the first time), the EU had spent the 1990s sorting out ex-Yugoslavia - holding it together would have been helpful - or devoted half its euro-zeal to modernising the mostly hapless armed forces of the EU, we might not be in this mess.

Never mind, it will happen now - and cost a lot of money.As a result, other things will suffer.The NHS plan will be among them, I wouldn't wonder, though Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Matthew Taylor told the conference that extra public spending becomes even more important if the private sector goes into recession.

Either way, if There is real trouble - and real casualties - on the home front, the status - if not the pay - of medical staff will soar.Ditto the military, of course. And Daily Mail jibes about 'our third world NHS' (has the editor ever been in a third world hospital? ) will look as glib as they really are .

Meanwhile life goes on, even here in BoMo, as the make-over marketing men (briefly) decided to call this gentle resort. As you will have seen, the Lib Dem leadership has been flirting with the idea of a 'mixed economy' in healthcare along French lines - a form of insurance 'topup' for all but the poorest.

What lies behind all this is a review of the Ashdown inheritance. Policies like the extra 1p in the£1 on income tax to improve schools are being scrutinised by two-brain types like Chris Huhne MEP, David Laws (the teenage banker who got Paddy's Yeovil seat) and Dr Richard Grayson, now doing Laws' job as party research chief.

Charlie (as everyone calls him) spoke of having 'a bonfire of ideas', which sounds a bit like the Taliban. But do not laugh at these people:

they often come up with good ideas which the bigger parties pinch without giving them any credit, while jeering at dafter notions in the Lib Dem camp - teen porn access, for example.

Strictly speaking, the conference didn't debate the NHS insurance policy, but It is around in the policy mix to be firmed up before the next election if We are all still here. It is meant to symbolise new thinking, 'nothing ruled in, nothing ruled out', as Mr Kennedy put it.

But It is worth noting that the Lib Dems are torn between using their new-found strength (52 MPs) to attack Labour or to try and mop up moderate Tories disaffected by the IDS regime.

Paddy insists they're a party of the centre-left and can never displace the Tories. Charlie's not so sure.

I should add that the conference also adopted a sensible degree of scepticism towards the PFI/PPP policy. It wants close and independent monitoring of what is actually saved - and no new PFI until It is clear. It floats the notion of 'gain sharing', so that private entrepreneurs do not trouser any unexpected jackpots.

Their 'seven key tests for provision of public services' are listed thus: value for money, quality, democratic accountability, flexibility, fair treatment for employees, development of public sector ethos and values, accessibility.

Not bad, and most Labour delegates would endorse them next week in Brighton, if they got the chance. I should add that the Lib Dems also demanded better training, conditions and support for NHS staff - including an extra£1,000 a year for the low paid. But do not expect the money right away.