Lib Dems are confident of winning the Battle of Beecroft

Clegg's team doubt Cameron is in a hurry to heed the same voices that urged him to cut the 50p rate.

One of the things that most frustrates Tory and Lib Dem ministers alike in the coalition is the way that policy disagreements that might be easily resolved through compromise are ramped up into tests of identity and virility on party back benches.

One often cited example is the appointment of Les Ebdon to head the Office of Fair Access, the body that is meant to guarantee that universities have as diverse an intake as possible. Most Conservatives didn’t like Ebdon, seeing him as a dangerous social engineer and (more dangerous still) the chosen candidate of Vince Cable. David Cameron was not enamoured with the idea of Ebdon getting the job.

Privately, senior Lib Dems say now they would have easily sacrificed Ebdon to get some other minor concession elsewhere – or banked the gesture of coalition goodwill to get an equivalent concession further down the line. But the scale of he anti-Vince, anti-Ebdon backlash meant Nick Clegg could not surrender without looking as if he had been bullied into it by the Tory right. So the Lib Dems stood their ground and the appointment went ahead.

Something similar is unfolding around the Beecroft report. When the report was first delivered the Lib Dems made clear they could accept bits of it but had to reject some of the more outlandish ideas. Chiefly, they oppose  “no fault” dismissal at will on the grounds that it would strike fear into the hearts of employees on whose confidence consumer demand still depends. There is no evidence, the Lib Dems say, that making it easier for bosses to sack people on a whim creates new jobs.

Adrian Beecroft, the venture capitalist and Tory donor who authored the plans, blames Cable as the obstacle to their implementation and has today  attacked the business secretary as a “socialist”. In fact, reservations about Beecroft go way beyond Cable’s office. When the report was first delivered, Ed Davey (now Energy Secretary) was still in the Business Department and he was as scornful of much of its content as Cable. Davey is in most respects a classic “Orange Book” liberal, respected by sensible Tories and simply incompatible in every way with the caricature of a secret Bolshevik. Likewise, Clegg’s office was happy to heap derision on Beecroft’s report as “a really shoddy piece of work” - flimsy, poorly researched.

The Lib Dems thought they had already made sufficient concessions to send the more extreme elements of Beecroft into touch earlier this year. The report is only enjoying a zombie renaissance because the Tories are feeling wounded and anxious about the economy and the atrocious public reception given to George Osborne's Budget. In the absence of other ideas, Beecroft’s fanatical supply-side assault on “red tape” looks to many Conservatives like a decent way of re-asserting true blue control over the economic agenda.

The yellow team, meanwhile, are pretty confident that this manoeuvre won’t succeed. For a start, Team Clegg likes to point out that the last time they warned the Tories to steer clear of an idea that would reinforce the impression that they were callous cheerleaders for plutocracy it was the notion of cutting the 50p top rate of tax. Osborne ignored them; they felt vindicated by the result. No fault dismissal, they say, has the potential to be similarly toxic. As one Lib Dem in government told me recently: “Cameron and Osborne look at the scale of the problems facing the economy and they look at Beecroft and see its not the answer. They may be quite right wing, but they aren’t stupid.”
 

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.