Sketch: Nick Clegg's speech

Members should “prepare for vitriol and abuse".

When Nick Clegg revealed his message to his members was to go back to their constituencies and “prepare for vitriol and abuse" observers wondered why wait that long.

And thus the sound of blades being sharpened on handy rocks from Brighton’s sand-less beach provided a useful indicator of the welcome being prepared for the Lib Dem leader as he prepared to tell his party that they would not be reaching the sunlit uplands any time soon.

Obviously aware of the threat to their leader the lights in the conference centre were switched off before the speech to allow loyal and ,one assumes, fully frisked members to gather on stage to provide a safe, if staring, background to his end of the conference speech.

With party support now in a place where the doldrums would be a plus and half the MPs in the hall heading for the dole the audience brought a whole new meaning to enthusiasm.

Thankfully for Nick his path had been smoothed yesterday by the decision of Danny Alexander’s mum to allow her youngest a day trip to Brighton to make his own speech.

Still masquerading as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny had plundered the “Greatest Scottish jokes of all time” annual for 1908 to remind party members why they were as deep in the odure as the opinion polls suggest.

Whether this was a deliberate attempt to remind delegates just how worse the situation could be is unknown but Danny was certainly given a prominent position as his leader addressed the faithful.

Having spent much of the parliamentary season in mournful contemplation of the turn-ups in his trousers it was a slightly surreal scene as he strode onto the platform to be announced yet again as the Deputy Prime Minister.

As half the members in the hall joined the party confident in the belief that they would never be in power the reality is clearly a shock but Nick made it clear that having got a sniff of it—and what goes with it—for him at least not to mention Danny’s mam, there would be no going back.

And he turned the history of the Lib Dens on its head by declaring if people wanted protest not power they should vote Labour which, sadly for him , most are apparently already doing.

The past is gone and is not coming back he told the delegates as he announced the last leader but three, Paddy Ashdown, would be getting them ready for the next general election.

And talking of which there was no mention of the other one with Prime Minister in his title busy getting ready for tonight’s appearance on Letterman in New York.

One can only hope that if the” Pleb” story comes up Letterman will seek to confirm with the PM whether his Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell prefers to be called “Thrasher” after his time at Rugby school or by his other favourite title BSD , ‘Big Swinging Dick.”

But that is for conferences to come but meanwhile back in Brighton where

days past a chauffeur-driven was only a dream a party leader’s speech would go on and on as pledges never to be fulfilled were made.

But Nick needed just over the half hour in the new world to tell them they would need binoculars to see the good times coming.

“Imagine yourself standing on the doorstep in 2015”, he asked them.

They did and he left to slightly hysterical applause.

Nick Clegg and wife. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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.