The Tories hope (and Labour fears) that the political weather is changing

The media are sounding bored with the story of everything going Labour's way.

There is a lot of political meteorology going on in Westminster at the moment. MPs are acutely sensitive to what they see as seasonal changes in the way they are portrayed by the media. They aren’t wrong to detect that press coverage tends to shift in weather patterns, with a prevailing wind blowing at the backs of some candidates and hard in the faces of others.

Mostly, those trends track opinion polls and perceptions of one party leader’s performance. But they can also become self-sustaining – feedback loops of positive or negative coverage. Besides, journalists hunt in packs. Once a pattern for coverage is established it can fix a distorting lens on the news agenda, through which every detail is filtered. Thus, for example, when Gordon Brown was enjoying his short honeymoon as Prime Minister – respected for seriousness of purpose and an earnest demeanour – David Cameron was going through one of those periods where a lack of policy heft was drawing criticism.

It was summer and images of the Conservative leader in shorts on the beach seemed to suggest a boyish unreadiness for office, as compared to Brown’s besuited seriousness. Fast forward a year. Brown’s leadership was in crisis and Cameron was looking more like the next Prime Minister. Suddenly the same holiday snaps made the Tory leader look like an ordinary guy, at ease with himself and the country; his Labour counterpart was robotic and aloof. The people had not changed but in journalistic terms, the story was different.

At the start of this year, Ed Miliband looked weak. David Cameron was enjoying a poll bounce after his (non) veto of a European treaty. Labour MPs were anxious and chattering nervously about the inadequacy of their leadership. The whole opposition project looked shaky and everything Miliband did seemed to feed into that narrative. A misspelled tweet referring to an 80s quiz programme as “blackbusters” instead of “blockbusters” was treated as an enormous gaffe, practically rocking the foundations of the Labour party.

Then came a Labour spring. George Osborne’s budget failed. It got tangled up in a whole bunch of bungled policy presentations and botched media performances now known collectively as the “omnishambles”. Suddenly, Miliband was to be taken seriously as a potential Prime Minister. Divisions in the coalition were all potentially fatal; the Tory leadership was in question. Everything Cameron did has subsequently been shone through the new jaundiced lens. Take, for example, reports that the Prime Minister sipped wine while administering his recent reshuffle – a fairly unremarkable detail in most respects. Except it was treated as proof that Cameron is heartless and arrogant. He quaffed claret and failed to offer a glass to his brutally despatched underlings, like a drunken lord dismissing his downtrodden staff.  Two years ago it would have been evidence of what a supremely confident and relaxed man he is, effortlessly carrying out the duties of high office when his predecessor was surly and uptight. Cameron the natural.

Obviously these changes in presentation are informed by choices the politicians themselves make. Mistakes and successes are amplified; confidence breeds good coverage, insecurity invites a kicking. The budget provoked bad headlines because it was not, by most standards, a good budget. Miliband got a fairer hearing because he held his nerve, made some judgement calls and said things that forced his party and the media to pay closer attention.

Nonetheless, the press pack gets bored with any particular story and impatient for a new one. Many Westminster fingers are currently being held aloft, sensing the wind changing. So Miliband could be Prime Minister? Really? So what’s he really on about? And what’s all this about friction with Ed Balls? That’s the story, surely. And wait a minute! Could those be green shoots of economic recovery just visible puncturing the arid soil? A bit of growth and surely the Tories can start closing the gap in the polls. Of course they’d be behind mid-term when forced to take unpopular decisions, but compare the personal ratings of Miliband and Cameron. When it comes down to it, the nation has a clear favourite to be Prime Minister – this could be the colour of political coverage for the new season.

Everything depends, of course, on whether the leaders and their parties can get through party conferences without any mishaps. I wouldn’t want to suggest that the whole direction of politics is dictated by mood swings of editors, reporters and commentators with short attention spans. But I detect from Labour and Tories alike (in the form of anxiety on the former side; hope on the latter) that a different weather system is drifting in.

On the Conservative side, much depends on whether or not a huge Boris Johnson-shaped cloud rains on Cameron’s conference parade. There is clearly concern in Downing Street about the PM being upstaged.

For Labour, concern is centred on the leader’s speech. Last year’s intervention from the podium got mixed reviews to say the least. Only later, when the weather had changed, did it become conventional wisdom to see Miliband’s disquisition on predatory and productive modes of capitalism as a perceptive, agenda-setting insight. Now there is pressure on the leader to advance his position with a more concrete – and more pithily phrased offer; something that starts to sketch the outlines of a winnable campaign. The advice from one senior Labour figure close to Miliband, not terribly helpful but certainly true and applicable to Cameron too, and Nick Clegg for that matter: “Just don’t screw it up.”

The pre-conference advice from one senior Labour figure close to Miliband: "Just don’t screw it up." Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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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.