The Lib Dems' money woes are growing

Clegg's party might need a spell in opposition just to balance the books.

The Electoral Commission has published its accounts of political party income and expenditure. The table showing the financial state of health of the top 14 - the ones that get £250,000 or more - is available here.

The item that has made a few headlines is the drop in income for the Tories. The party's takings were down by 45 per cent on the previous year - now at the same level they were last at in 2003. That's wilderness income. Of course, the Conservative coffers will fill up again as an election approaches. They always do. But the fall in revenue might also reflect disquiet among big donors at negative publicity attached to the status of being seen to be a Cameron crony (especially after this incident) and irritation at the party leadership's willingness to indulge media bashing of bankers, high pay and fat-cattery.  The Telegraph's Ben Brogan wrote a column earlier this week suggesting donors were sniffing around Boris Johnson as a friendlier protege.

Labour also received less than last year but, thanks to the trade unions, the party's funding stream is a little more stable (although there is a political price to be paid for that dependency ... the subject of another much longer blog another time).

One thing that caught my eye in this year's accounts though was the perennial shortage of cash felt by the Lib Dems. They take in a fraction of the sums enjoyed by the big two and, unlike their rivals, spend more than they earn. One of the cruelties of coalition for the Lib Dems is that power has not suddenly opened up new exciting financing opportunities. Joining the governing big league has not granted entry to some exclusive high rolling donors club. Meanwhile, the party has lost the "short money" made available by the state to official opposition parties. And to make matters worse, Lib Dem councillors traditionally chip in around 10 per cent of their allowances to help fund the party. So the massacres in local elections in recent years have put a further squeeze on income. The Lib Dems, in other words, are utterly broke.

One senior Labour figure recently suggested to me that this would ultimately be the factor that breaks the coalition. The Lib Dems, this theory goes, will have to quit the government a year or so before an election so they can get their short money back. Without it they simply wouldn't be able to mount a campaign. Now that could be spite and mischief from the enemy camp (the shadow cabinet figure involved is no admirer of the Cleggists) but senior Lib Dems themselves don't deny privately that they have serious money woes. Maybe staying in government to the very bitter end will prove a luxury they can't afford.

Entering government has cost Clegg's party money as well as votes. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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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.