David Laws stood up this morning and reminded the Lib Dem conference about the first party conference he went to, in 1994. That gathering was quite a bit more turbulent than the last week has been, he reminded delegates:
Some of you may well remember it : a debate on legalising drugs, then another backing provision of state regulated brothels; followed shortly by a row over plans to abolish the monarchy, all culminating in Paddy Ashdown doing what the media called “storming off the stage.”.
This week has been characterised more by a series of set-piece showdowns between Nick Clegg and either his members or Vince Cable, almost all of which he has won. One interpretation of this is that the Lib Dem leader has moved his party decisively to the right, and that they are now a serious party of government willing to accept the compromises that the leadership says come with that. Read more
“Given his tendency to treat rebellion like a reluctant bather inching his way into the sea at Skegness, it made sense to push him right in at the outset, on the grounds that he’d run straight back to his towel, and not try again for at least six months.”
These words were written by Damien McBride, the Gordon Brown spinner, about David Miliband. (I would link to his blog but he’s taken it down – almost as if he has a book coming out.)
But they could easily have been written by anyone from team Clegg about Vince Cable, who this morning backed down from his overnight threat to rebel against the leadership on the economic motion that has just been debated at Lib Dem conference. Read more
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: Read more
Defeat in Thursday night’s parliamentary vote on the principle of military action in Syria is not an existential wound for David Cameron, whatever his more excitable enemies say. But, after several months of good form, the prime minister looks weaker than at any time since taking office more than three years ago. Failing to win over Liberal Democrat MPs in his coalition government is one thing. Being defied by his own Tories is quite another. Prime ministers are simply not supposed to lose House of Commons votes on major matters of foreign policy.
Mr Cameron recalled parliament from its summer recess in the assumption that securing its support for some kind of intervention in Syria would be straightforward. That has turned out to be mortifyingly complacent. And this is not merely hindsight speaking. It should have been obvious after the apparent chemical attack by the Syrian regime earlier this month that the widespread revulsion in Britain was not matched by an appetite to get involved. Voters and MPs were openly sceptical; the armed forces were privately reluctant. Only an assiduous campaign of persuasion would have swung the argument, and it never came. William Hague, Mr Cameron’s well-regarded foreign secretary, was too reticent. Read more
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. Read more
The planned high speed rail project from London to the midlands and the north is starting to look very uncertain indeed.
After the news last week that the estimated costs have spiked by £10bn since the beginning of the year, we then revealed in the FT that the government’s cost/benefit analysis assumed that no one would work on a train, increasing the apparent benefit of getting to your destination more quickly. Another chunk was taken out of the expected returns.
Now it seems that, having proposed the scheme in the first place, Labour is also getting cold feet. Lord Mandelson, the former business secretary who does not usually have much truck for nimbyism, launched a bitter attack on the project in this morning’s FT. He writes: Read more
George Osborne has been touring the TV and radio studios this morning talking about the deals he has managed to strike with some of the smaller government departments for how they are going to cut their budgets in 2015/16. Talking about the settlements made with departments including Justice, Energy and Communities, the chancellor told the BBC:
We are now about 20 per cent of the way there with a month to go. I don’t think any chancellor in history has made this much progress with a month to go.
Osborne still has a huge amount to achieve in the next month, particularly in the face of intransigence from big departments such as the MoD and the Home Office. But in the middle of the spending round process, another decision on a massive item of government spending will also come a step closer. Read more
Nick Clegg this morning insisted he would stay in government until 2015, and would not need to create any “breathing space” for his party by pulling his ministers out before the general election. This is what he said in a speech in London:
The public will see me [campaigning] as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Constitutionally the government still ticks over. Ministers are slightly more “absentee landlords” in Whitehall offices during that six week period.
Of course, Clegg is right that the public is used to ministers leaving their day jobs and hitting the campaign trail during the weeks leading up to a general election. And he may also be right that voters would think it very odd if the Lib Dems pulled out of the coalition just before an election in order to assert their own identity more clearly. Read more
As a fellow hack remarked to me on the way out of the Commons chamber after PMQs this week, imagine if it had been the other way round.
Imagine that David Cameron had not been in New York and had been taking prime minister’s questions instead of Nick Clegg, his deputy. And imagine that Lib Dem after Lib Dem – five in total – had stood up to attack the prime minister over their pet project – let’s say the mansion tax, for example. What would have happened?
Almost undoubtedly, there would have been fury on the Tory benches. Cameron would probably have told Clegg to get his troops in line and Conservative backbenchers would have complained quite fairly that the government agenda was being derailed by something that only one side really cared about. Read more
Of all the campaigns in this local election, the Lib Dem one has probably been the lowest-key. As Westminster has focused on the steady rise of Ukip, and what that means for both the Tory and Labour vote, the Lib Dems have plugged away beneath the radar.
That suits Nick Clegg. His party is predicted to lose over 100 seats from today’s vote, and the less attention the media pays to Lib Dem failures, the better, from his point of view.
That was summed up by Clegg’s final day of campaigning, which was spent on a whistle-stop trip to the Harvey’s brewery in Lewes, where he met a maximum of 15 members of staff during a tour of the brewery, before conducting a few interviews and dashing back to London on government business. Read more
In the run-up to last year’s reshuffle, a rumour circulated that Jo Swinson was going to be elevated from being Nick Clegg‘s PPS, not only to ministerial level, but straight into the cabinet – specifically as Scotland secretary.
This didn’t happen – Swinson was instead made a junior minister at Bis. But with half a eye on a reshuffle later this year (which seems to have now been pushed back from a provisional June date to autumn at the earliest), the rumours have started once more.
There are plenty of reasons some in the party are pushing the idea: Read more
Tory backbenchers probably thought that when they ganged together to thwart attempts to make the Lords mostly elected last year, they had got rid of what they saw as a “constitutional threat” for the foreseeable future.
But conversations I have had in recent days with senior Liberal Democrats suggest there is a scenario under which the plans could be resurrected.
Officials close to Nick Clegg have told me that if there was a hung parliament at the next election and a deal with the Conservatives was the most likely outcome, this would give them an opening to insist that the plans were put back on the table. Read more
As today’s parliamentary session in memory of Margaret Thatcher began, several journalists repositioned themselves in the Tory side of the chamber, looking at Ed Miliband. The Labour leader, it was though, would have the most difficult job, caught between being respectful and saying what he really thought about the Tory leader whom so many of his colleagues spent decades opposing and trying to oust.
In the end, he played a difficult hand very well. The key passage was one where he listed her successes and mistakes. I will quote the entire passage below, but it’s worth noticing three things:
1) He quotes the successes first, and is generous about them, even her economic legacy;
2) He mentions some of what her critics see as her most egregious mistakes, such as section 28 and her lack of concern for society as a whole;
3) When mentioning her mistakes, he nullified Tory moans by praising the Tories for turning their backs on them. Read more
Talking to a senior Liberal Democrat the other day, talk turned to which of their MPs are at risk at the next election. This person reckoned the party could feasibly hold on to between 43 and 50 seats, which would be a major triumph given the meltdown many have been predicting for the last few months.
One seat this person insisted was safe was that of Danny Alexander. Why, I asked – because Inverness voters like having a political heavyweight (before you criticise, he is a member of the quad) as their MP? To a certain extent, they replied. Because the voters there are died-in-the-wool Lib Dems? Not especially, they said. Why then? Because Inverness has done very well out of Danny Alexander.
On several occasions since Alexander became Treasury chief secretary, there have been small but significant giveaways that help, among other places, Inverness in particular. Read more
A few weeks ago over a long lunch, a senior Tory warned that Cameron was going to end up cornered over press reform after Lord Puttnam rather unhelpfully decided to add Leveson-friendly amendments into the defamation bill.
The person said the amendment to introduce a cheap arbitration service between newspapers and the public meant that Leveson could end up being “put into law through the back door”. He added:
It is going to cause Cameron a huge problem when the bill comes back to the Commons.
Jeremy Forrest, the teacher extradited from France last year
We revealed this morning that the first battle that Nick Clegg intends to pick in the coalition after his party’s victory in Eastleigh is over the European arrest warrant.
The EAW is one of a number of measures involved in the European crime and justice framework, which the Tories want to leave altogether. The prime minister has won plaudits among his own party for saying he would pull out of the 130 measures agreed among EU countries, but he needs the support of his coalition partners to do so, as it must go to a vote in the Commons.
Negotiations between the two parties are being led by Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin, and according to sources close to the talks, have pretty much broken down altogether. Read more
Boris Johnson and Maria Hutchings campaigning in Eastleigh
We are now just a week from the Eastleigh byelection and the likely result is starting to take shape.
The Lib Dems have emerged as the decisive favourites. They have run an impeccable campaign, from choosing a man who was the antithesis of Chris Huhne, to limiting the campaign to three weeks, preventing their rivals from getting their machinery properly off the ground.
For a full explanation of why the Lib Dem ground operation has been better than the Tory one, James Forsyth’s piece for the Spectator gives an excellent summary. Read more
It was always going to be fascinating to watch how the two coalition parties would campaign when pitted against each other in the closely-fought Eastleigh byelection.
Commentators expected both sides to start criticising policies they have backed within the coalition, and to a certain extent that has happened.
But a press note just delivered by the Lib Dems has turned that on its head, becoming what must surely be the first election material to praise a minister of a different party for implementing government policy. Read more
Nick Clegg in Eastleigh
Nick Clegg yesterday won the race to become the first party leader to get to Eastleigh, where the Lib Dems are about to test their theory that they can hold onto their seats against Tory challenges in 2015.
Bravely, Clegg chose to tour a college where car mechanics were being trained, which given the circumstances in which Chris Huhne, the previous MP, had to resign his seat, helped the picture caption writers no end.
The Lib Dem leader gave off an air of unruffled determination, telling reporters he was “very confident” that his party would hold on to the seat. Read more