Lib Dem dreams, ripped at the seams?

Clegg's and Cameron's MPs are singing very different songs about the prospects for Lords reform

Coalition relations have suddenly taken a turn from Grease. Yes, that Grease. The musical. Everyone in cabinet was at the same meeting yesterday. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are signed up to the same coalition agreement and the government has now signed off on the same plan for redesigning Parliament’s upper chamber. And yet the tunes coming out of the Tory and Lib Dem camps are so very different. It reminds me of the Thunderbirds and the Pink Ladies pumping Danny and Sandy for the details of their summer fling. Same story; utterly incompatible interpretation. (“Saved Clegg’s life, he nearly drowned.”/ “Cameron showed off, splashing around.”)

Lib Dems are bullish, quite remarkably so in fact. The message from Clegg HQ is that Lords reform will definitely happen and that Cameron will get enough of his MPs to vote for it. I am told that one of the most energetic speakers in favour of delivering the plan at yesterday’s cabinet session was George Osborne. Senior Lib Dems insist they have effectively transmitted the seriousness of their intentions to the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, that they aren’t mucking around, that this thing has to be done and that Tory MPs can bloody well vote for it. “We’ve held our noses and our breath to walk through the lobbies for them enough times,” says one senior Lib Dem source.  

No one thinks it will be easy for Cameron to deliver Conservative votes for Clegg. One explanation for this week’s speech outlining a new, tougher Tory line on welfare – and perhaps for the U-turn on fuel duty rises yesterday – is that  the party leadership needs to earn some brownie points with the right before it starts whipping them behind hated Cleggite initiatives. The burst of True Blue gunfire, says one Lib Dem, is “air cover” for the impending retreat on Lords reform.

They wish. The view among Conservative MPs seems to be that Lords reform remains negotiable. I have yet to detect much sign of rebels laying down their arms and there are reports of Tories being told their career prospects will not be harmed if they decide they cannot vote with the government. The official line is very much that a vote will be whipped and that the usual ministerial duties therefore apply (in other words, anyone on the government payroll would have to resign if they wanted to rebel)*. There is some speculation too that one reason Cameron continues to postpone his long-awaited reshuffle is that he needs the prospect of promotion as an incentive to temper sedition. Since MPs who are passed over and ministers who are sacked will be a source of mischief, Cameron would rather wait until Lords reform battles are fought before creating a mini-cohort of resentful also-rans. So the slightly over-wrought theorising goes, anyway.

Cameron might simply have under-estimated how passionately his MPs feel about sabotaging Clegg’s ambitions. Many sincerely hate the specific proposals on offer for Lords reform. Many more want revenge for slights, offences and past policy sacrifices. There is particular fury over Lib Dem abstention on a Labour motion targeting Jeremy Hunt earlier this month. Why, ask Tory MPs, should such disloyalty to a governing partner not be repaid in kind? One Conservative minister warns that Cameron and Osborne “have no idea what goes on in the party.”

So perhaps Clegg and friends are justified in thinking they have all the assurances they need that Cameron is on side. Perhaps Cameron has made those very assurances. It might just also be the case that the Prime Minister can’t deliver on them.  

*Update: This line has now been tightened in a briefing from the PM's spokesman. There are no "nods and winks" apparently. And anyone defying the whips will "be making an interesting career move."

The message from Clegg HQ is that Lords reform will definitely happen. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.