Enamoured of Carla Bruni?

Sark-astic Britain

As Mrs Miggins said of the fleeing French aristos in Blackadder the Third: “ooh la la and an éclair for both of us!” The visit of diminutive French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his glamorous other half has caused a stir in Westminster this week, but bloggers saw cracks in the gloss. Iain Dale has not yet been won over by “France’s Thatcher”. Sensing demagoguery in his eyes, he also fears a lack of focus:

“While he appeared to have clear plans for France, he has allowed himself to be distracted from the main task of reforming France's stagnant and centralised economy.”

And Eutopia asked whether Sarko has stitched up Gordon Brown domestically, by hinting that he’s acted to get Europe “moving ahead”. He wrote:

“Sarko seemed to be suggesting that Gordon’s done something pretty major to ensure that the Lisbon Treaty is ratified. Pretty major like following Sarko’s lead and refusing to hold a referendum? Or was there some other agreement made behind the closed doors of the Council?”

The sceptics won’t like that.

Meanwhile the fragrant Carla Bruni was getting ratty over the sale of an old pic of herself in the buff – while on a more sensible note, Edis Bevan provided some interesting historical context to these suddenly rosy Anglo-French relations.

Musical Youth

The week saw the launch of Liberal Youth, the new organisation for young Lib Dems. Your intrepid blogger showed up late at its launch party on Tuesday night and missed the free booze. Andy Mayer, a self-declared decrepit old hack from its predecessor organisation, was highly impressed. He enthused:

“I have to say much has changed since the early 1990s. For starters the event was heaving, overflowing the main venue into two side rooms and an outdoor terrace. Possibly around 250-300 people. Further everyone was frankly rather normal. This was not 30 socially awkward policy geeks stuffed into a cold gymnasium in Hull discussing abolishing the monarchy while agonising whether or not the cheesy nibbles were vegan.”

Perhaps irked at http://www.order-order.com/2008/03/party-that-dare-not-speak...">not receiving an invite, Guido complained that the group’s new website has a “Top of the Pops circa-1974 feel.” What a grump!

What have we learned this week?

That the epic abortion row between Nadine Dorries MP and blogger Unity looks set, as they say, to run and run

Across the Pond

Like many of the shriller US bloggers Michelle Malkin is unhappy with John McCain’s recent use of leftist rhetorical tactics – such as nuance. Media Lizzy is more impressed though, and thought McCain’s foreign policy speech this week hinted at an ability to win over Democrats.

Video of the week

The must-watch video of the week is a contribution by ‘Kev Livingstone’ to the London Elects site. An impression of Ken Livingstone doing an impression of Boris Johnson as a stuck CD. Post-modern!

Quote of the week

“Personally I think this is all pretty timid stuff. I would prefer to see him strung up from a lamp post by his fingertips, next to Jack Straw and Ed Balls. That's not really anything to do with beer taxes, though. It would just be for fun.”

Greenie blogger Paul Kingsnorth on the online campaign to bar the Chancellor from every pub in Britain.

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.