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