The Liberal Democrat surrender

This is the great betrayal. There is no other way to put it.

Did anyone see TweedleCam and TweedleClegg on the doorstep of Downing Street? I'm glad I didn't have breakfast this morning. Otherwise, I think I'd have been sick by now. (By the way, will their private secretaries be able to tell them apart?)

Nick Clegg -- the former aide to the Tory Eurocrat Leon Brittan and a former member of the Cambridge University Conservative Association -- is now the Deputy Prime Minister of the UK. David Laws -- the former investment banker and Orange Book supporter of an insurance-backed health service who was once suspected by Paddy Ashdown of being a Conservative mole and was once invited by George Osborne to join the Tory shadow cabinet -- is Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Osborne's number two. Vince Cable -- another former Orange Booker and one-time supporter of "light-touch regulation" who, as I noted in a critical NS profile of him in September 2009, first touted the possibility of a Tory-Lib Dem alliance back in 2005 -- is the Business Secretary.

It will be interesting to document Cable's verbal and intellectual contortions in the coming days, as he defends the impending Tory "austerity" measures. Like Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling, he spent much of the election campaign condemning Cameron and Osborne's economic illiteracy and, in particular, their Hooverite enthusiasm for spending cuts this year (opposed, incidentally, by the International Monetary Fund, the OECD and 67 leading economists in a letter to the Financial Times).

So, here comes the double-dip recession -- courtesy of Cameron and Clegg, Osborne and Cable (oh, and those self-destructive Labour tribalists, on left and right, who preferred luxuriating in opposition to contemplating a power-sharing deal with the Lib Dems).

The truth is that in countless seats seats across the land, thousands of people voted Lib Dem in order to keep Cameron out of Downing Street. They did not want, or expect, the Liberal Democrats to become Tory enablers in a hung parliament. In an interview with me on the eve of the election, the arch-tribalist Ed Balls called on Labour voters to back the Lib Dem candidate (and sitting MP), Norman Lamb, in the Tory-Lib Dem seat of Norfolk North in order to keep the Conservatives out. The result? The third-placed Labour vote fell 3 per cent and Lib Dem Lamb held on to his seat with an increased majority over the second-placed Conservatives. In my view, Lamb now owes those tactical Labour voters in his constituency an apology. So do all those Lib Dem MPs who were elected in three-way marginals.

Clegg has betrayed progressives across the length and breadth of Britain. He had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to repair the century-old rift on the centre left and forge a radical and progressive alliance in favour of electoral and constitutional reform. I suspect Labour will now sit on its hands in any future referendum and the Lib Dems might be on their own campaiging for a "Yes" vote. Their new partners in government have already stated their plans to oppose any change to our dysfunctional first-past-the-post system.

Clegg has also betrayed the longer-term strategic interests of his party for crude and short-term tactical gains. Thanks to his bravura performance in the first leaders' televised debate, we had seemed to be on the verge of breaking our stale duopoly and bringing genuine three-party politics to the UK for the first time.

But the next general election, whether it is sooner or later (and the bookies have 50-50 odds on another election within the year!), will see the Lib Dems horribly squeezed by the two main parties. It will be a straight Conservative-Labour battle once more. And what, after all, would be the point of voting Lib Dem? In fact, I'm sure the Labour pamphlets have already been printed: "Vote Clegg, Get Cameron". It has a ring to it. It also has the virtue of being true.

Clegg's decision to join hands with Cameron's Conservatives is, in the words of Alastair Campbell on Newsnight yesterday, "a strategic error of gigantic and historic proportions". Reports have already emerged of the Labour Party website crashing under the pressure of new membership applications. One cabinet minister expects hundreds of defections from the Lib Dems to Labour in his own constituency. "I even know the names of one or two Lib Dem councillors thinking of jumping ship. They are distraught," he tells me.

Labour now remains the only truly progressive, centre-left, anti-Conservative, mainstream party in this country. Bring on the next election. The Liberal Democrats will be punished. Clegg and co will regret their foolish betrayal.

UPDATE: Oh, and the biggest policy betrayal by the Lib Dems was Clegg's decision to swap his de facto amnesty for illegal immigrants for (what he once called) the Tories' "arbitary cap" on immigration. How can Lib Dems like Simon Hughes and Charles Kennedy vote for such an immoral and unworkable proposal?

 

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.