As we head towards next week’s Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, the party’s big beasts are making themselves visible, lining up to point out the great Lib Dems successes of the last three years, and more importantly, to attack their opponents.
One thing that is worth watching is who is attacking which opponent. Over the last two days, two prominent Lib Dems have given very different interviews to the New Statesman which help crystallise a battle that might yet determine which government we have in 2015.
In the left corner (as it were), there is Tim Farron, who told George Eaton this:
This brief stint when parliament returns from its summer break only to depart again two weeks later for party conferences is a slightly strange innovation. Its main purpose is to help the government get through its agenda (the lobbying bill is being pushed through parliament at the moment, for example), but it also helps set the mood of all three parties as they head towards their annual get-togethers.
For a leader who has enjoyed a relatively good summer, it is a chance to use that as a rallying point and gain extra momentum before conference. For one who has had a difficult one, the emphasis must be on scoring a couple of quick hits to give the troops some hope at least.
Ed Miliband has had a difficult summer, as a complete lack of direction from Labour HQ saw the government dominate the news agenda. But he was given a reprieve in the form of the prime minister’s botched Syria vote, which made it appear briefly that Miliband was more influential in forming foreign policy than the prime minister.
This weekend, a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times showed Labour with a 10-point lead over the Tories. After a bruising summer for Ed Miliband, during which he has been accused of floundering and letting the coalition dictate the news agenda, this was welcome news in the Labour camp.
The polls have been steady for a long time now, giving Labour a lead of somewhere between 3 and 10 points (largely depending on where Ukip are – more of which later). Given the party probably only needs a two-point lead to win an overall majority, the party looks fair set. At least, that’s the argument of long-time Ed supporter Mehdi Hasan, who argued last week:
When Ed Miliband was deliberating last week on the approach to take for Thursday’s vote on military strikes against Syria, he kept his team very tight. Miliband, Stewart Wood, Douglas Alexander, Tim Livesey (his chief of staff) and Hilary Benn (the former development secretary) were the inner circle. Others were not necessarily deliberately excluded, but simply not present when the key decisions were being made.
Over the weekend, many of those others – especially the Blairites – began to express disquiet at the result. Ben Bradshaw, the former minister, said the result was “not what any of the main parties or their leaders wanted”. Jim Murphy, Labour’s shadow defence secretary, said: “There is some unease about the outcome off the vote and I share it. It’s not what I wanted.”
Two factors stand out as having contributed to David Cameron’s unprecedented defeat last night at the hands of Labour, and more significantly, government rebels: a pinch of farce and a great deal of hubris.
First the hubris. Cameron recalled parliament to vote on an issue of going to war, without properly having prepared the ground. The case for launching strikes on Syria had not been made, the consequences had not been spelled out, and the intelligence was slim.
This blasé attitude from the government was summed up in Cameron’s answer to one particular question:
Labour people are starting to come back from their holidays, and they are in a mood little short of despair. Ed Miliband’s “summer of silence” and the criticism it has attracted from some of the party’s biggest beasts have made for a rather gloomy return for many of their MPs and advisers.
Miliband is relying on two events to reset that narrative and re-energise his party: the conference speech and a reshuffle either soon before or soon after conference. Both timings might seem unfair: just before the conference and new shadow ministers don’t have enough time to prepare for interviews and speeches; just after and all the hard pre-conference work is wasted. But such is politics.
The Telegraph has a very interesting story today about Tory plans to change the way they would sign up to a coalition deal in future. In 2010, the leadership decided it wanted to do a deal with the Lib Dems – the rest of the parliamentary party was simply told to get in line.
This contrasted with the way the Lib Dems handled their side of the negotiation, calling a parliamentary meeting to discuss the deal before putting it to a vote of MPs and peers, before holding a special conference of the whole party so members could vote too.
Many Lib Dems have credited this process as the reason their party has been relatively disciplined while in coalition, while many Tory backbenchers have campaigned openly for them to ditch their partners.
This morning Labour is trying to relaunch its summer after a fairly lethargic first couple of weeks in which the party was knocked sideways by outspoken comments by the previously little known MP George Mudie.
Chris Leslie, the shadow chief secretary, is holding a press event on falling living standards under the coalition, pointing to polling showing 70 per cent of voters believe recent improvements in the economy have not benefited middle- and lower-income families.
But the event is unlikely to quell concerns in Labour about the party’s apparent lack of direction. My colleague Jim Pickard reports in this morning’s FT some very revealing comments from a former senior Miliband supporter.
British ministers have been much more reluctant than their American counterparts to call out the Chinese for launching cyber attacks on UK government departments and companies. Barack Obama said in March:
We’ve made it very clear to China and some other state actors that, you know, we expect them to follow international norms and abide by international rules. And we’ll have some pretty tough talk with them. We already have.
British ministers have been much more reticent to blame China for widespread cyber attacks. But the latest files released from the cache provided by Edward Snowden, the US whistleblower shows that in private, the British security services don’t pull their punches. One document says:
Len McCluskey’s speech today to members of his Unite union was something of a barnstormer. The union boss was forthright on his views of the Labour party and its investigation into what happened in Falkirk, where Unite is accused of manipulating Labour candidate selection to boost its favoured candidates.
McCluskey tore into Ed Miliband and those around him, calling their decision to refer the Falkirk matter to police an “utter, utter disgrace”. He added:
Assertion was passed off as fact, allegation became reality.
It was the Americans who first broke ranks. Soon after David Cameron announced in January that he wanted to have a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2017 (if he is elected prime minister), the US declared its opposition to the UK leaving. In remarkably frank words for a diplomat, a senior American official told reporters:
We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU. That is in America’s interests. We welcome an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.
Since then, the Japanese have also weighed in on the Americans’ side. In evidence submitted to the first round of the government’s review of EU powers, Japan warns that as many as 130,000 jobs could be at risk if the UK does leave the union. In a memo to the foreign office, the Japanese government said:
Chuka Umunna is ambitious: that much is well known. George Parker, the FT’s political editor, has a feature-length profile in this weekend’s FT Magazine, looking at the man, his goals, his standing in the party, and whether he really likes being compared to Barack Obama.
More of that later, but it is worth mentioning an interesting tale of the shadow business secretary’s self-confidence and grand ambitious that has reached us this week.
Several months ago, Umunna sat his shadow cabinet colleagues down and told them he had a great new idea for how to run government procurement. Instead of allowing the MoD to buy weapons, for example, or the Department for Transport to buy trains, why not have the business department do it all?