Nick Clegg celebrates the Eastleigh byelection result
For well over a year, the Liberal Democrats have told supporters, commentators and their own MPs that they will fare better than their national poll ratings suggests.
At next year’s election, argue Nick Clegg’s strategists, the party will do well in areas they already have MPs, particularly given most of them are Tory-Lib Dem marginals, where the coalition of voters they have forged will stay with them for fear of letting the Tories in. This will let them retain about 40 of their 57 seats, think those at the top of the party, allowing for heavy losses to Labour in the north. Read more
Four polls have been published in the last 24 hours, all suggesting the same thing: the race for next year’s general election is now neck and neck.
Of course it is a symbolic moment that two of these polls show the Tories two points ahead – they are the first polls to put the governing party in the lead since early 2012. But within the margin of error, the race is essentially tied.
So what has happened in the last few days and weeks to cause Labour to slip from a pretty steady five point lead?
Unfortunately, the Lord Ashcroft poll can’t tell us, as it is the first in a series and so has no previous survey against which we can accurately monitor trends. Even more frustratingly, the ICM and the Populus polls seem to suggest very differing reasons for the poll move. Read more
Ed Miliband’s op-ed for the FT today on Europe has finally crystallised what each of the parties’ European position will be going into next year’s election. But anyone listening to Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary on the Today programme this morning would be forgiven for not understanding exactly what Labour’s position is. This is what he said:
The next Labour government will legislate for a lock that guarantees there cannot be a transfer of power from Britain to the European Union in the future without that in/out referendum. It’s an agenda for reform in Europe, not immediate exit from Europe.
So what does this mean, and how does it compare to the other two parties? Read more
One of the government’s main tax-cutting drives has been to encourage councils to keep tax rises to a minimum. Ministers have done this in two ways: firstly, by giving councils a cash incentive to freeze council tax; and secondly, by forcing any council that wants to raise tax by 2 per cent or more to put it to a local referendum.
Since that policy began, Eric Pickles, the local government secretary, has been irritated (but perhaps not surprised) to see dozens of councils raising tax by 1.99 per cent – just below the threshold. So recently, as revealed last week in the FT, he began pushing for a lower limit of 1.5 per cent. Read more
It is impossible to describe how enormously distressed I am by this situation and I am certainly too ill to attend the House of Lords today.
In the interests of my party and all concerned, I will now release a statement that I have prepared:
In 2009, I was the subject of a smear campaign in relation to House of Lords allowances. The timing of this campaign was clearly chosen as it was in the middle of major election campaigns, for which I was then responsible. I warned Nick Clegg how I considered that the party might be damaged in those elections as a result of those allegations. I said that I would bring forward my planned resignation as the Liberal Democrats Chief Executive on health grounds. I had not intended resigning until after helping Nick and the party through the 2010 General Election campaign. Read more
Many furrowed brows today at Lib Dem HQ at the continuing prominence of Lord Rennard, the Lib Dem peer accused of harassing women.
An internal party inquiry, the results of which emerged last night, found there was not enough evidence to take disciplinary action against Rennard, but that there was “credible evidence” he had violated the personal space of the women involved and should be forced to apologise.
This was enough, believe many at the top of the party, to make sure Rennard did not return to the team helping draw up the next Lib Dem manifesto, and possibly even enough to withdraw the whip altogether. Read more
Yesterday’s pledge by David Cameron to “roll back green levies”, made in the heat of PMQs, apparently caught his coalition partners by surprise. While the government had been discussing reducing certain levies, the Lib Dems had not agreed to anything specific and did not expect it to be made public.
This morning, Clegg decided to seize the initiative. Clearly irritated by the prime minister’s decision to float policies without checking them, he decided to float his own idea, as anathema to the Tories as reducing green measures is to the Lib Dems – raising taxes.
He told the Today programme: Read more
One of the interesting things about the new fixed-term parliamentary system is that it gives leaders a time period of several years in which to frame a narrative. Before 2010, parties existed on a constant war-footing, ready to go to the polls at any time if the circumstances dictated it.
Now, those both in opposition and government know that the election is years away and they can wait before going into election mode. That, coupled with the fact that most of the coalition’s central policy platform is now under way, gave Nick Clegg a rare chance to be circumspect today.
We were told that the Lib Dem leader’s conference speech would be “his most personal ever” – usually words that make the stomach turn. But for once, this part of his speech was handled well, if a little too lengthily. He told the hall: Read more
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
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
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
David Cameron and Nick Clegg were this morning falling over themselves to claim the credit for helping “hard working families” with news of a new voucher scheme that could be worth up to £1,200 per child.
After weeks of wrangling, the coalition was finally ready to press the button on a tax-free childcare scheme to replace the current “employer supported childcare” system. The new scheme will eventually reach up to 2.5m families – compared with the 450,000 who access the current voucher system – and include the self-employed. Read more
Since Thursday, the manoeuvrings over press regulation have taken increasingly more surreal turns.
First we had the prime minister abruptly calling off the talks, citing irreconcilable differences with Labour and the Lib Dems. Clegg and Miliband were only given a couple of hours’ notice about the announcement, journalists were given 30 minutes.
After that, it looked like the prime minister was heading for inevitable defeat in a vote today on the Lib-Lab proposals for a Royal Charter backed by statute. His aides seemed to recognise such, saying that the prime minister would promise to repeal such a law if there was a Tory majority in 2015. Read more