Wounded Tories will cause trouble for the Lib Dems

With Labour more confident and Tories anxious about their identity, Nick Clegg's party is about to f

There is something slightly ridiculous about the routine spin that defeated parties have to deploy after local election results. Losing, they say, is less of a set-back than it looks; the other side’s victory is not all that victorious.

That has been the message from the Tories and Lib Dems this morning as they survey the damage from last night’s ballot-box pummelling.  There is an element of truth in the assertion that mid-term polls always inflate anti-incumbent feeling. Local factors aside, the question such a poll implicitly asks of voters is “do you like the government?”. The question in a general election is “will you change the government?” They are similar, but not the same. Last night’s swing to Labour doesn’t demonstrate any national appetite to have Ed Miliband as prime minister (just as equivalent polls in the past have never signalled the country’s readiness to install Neil Kinnock, William Hague or any other unsuccessful opposition leader). Many Labour MPs and supporters wll be encouraged that Miliband has struck a note of humility and caution in his response to the results so far:

I also want to say something to those people who voted for other parties and the many people who did not vote at all … I will work tirelessly between now and the next General Election to win your trust … I know we have more work to do.

Anything more triumphant than that would have earned skeptical groans. The realism is itself a sign of progress in Labour's approach.

So what is the significance of last night’s vote? Just a couple of thoughts to begin with.

First, Labour will be relieved to see that their national share of the vote roughly reflects recent opinion poll trends. As recently as January of this year, the Tories had a lead over Labour – the enduring impact of the so-called “veto effect” from David Cameron’s sabotage of a Brussels treaty in December. Since the Budget, Labour has pulled ahead and opened up some more robust leads, even touching double digits on a good day for Miliband. Lurking in the back of most Labour minds is the fear that the lead is soft, likely to melt in the heat of a campaign. Party strategists would have preferred a vote share above 40% last night to really demonstrate that the advantage was setting, but they’ll take 39%. Much less than that and it would have been very hard for Miliband to claim any serious momentum in the country.

Second, the comparison with previous mid-term hammerings for incumbents doesn’t quite stand because there is a coalition government and a hung parliament. That means the Tories still need to be advancing in parts of the country to stand a chance of winning an outright majority at the next general election. Any kind of retreat by the Conservatives raises questions about David Cameron’s national strategy. Indeed, those questions have been raised pretty vocally overnight. Patience is wearing thin with a leader who has yet to demonstrate that he has a plan to mine hitherto undiscovered seams of potential Tory support. It is worth adding too that in last year’s local elections the Conservatives actually gained seats, largely because a lot of their voters bothered to turn out. The best explanation is that they came to the ballot to reject AV and threw in a vote for the Tory council while there were there.

That leaves many Tories thinking that in order to consolidate and advance, they need issues that animate the party base, fire up traditional Conservative sentiment (and play on anti-Lib Dem feeling). That perception will be strengthened by a relatively hearty vote for Ukip last night. So Cameron is going to come under a lot of pressure to act and sound more like an “authentic” Tory, which is a very hazardous proposition. The Conservatives didn’t miss out on a majority in 2010 because people thought they were insufficiently obsessed with crime, Europe and immigration.

If Boris Johnson is re-elected as London Mayor, as seems the most probable outcome, Cameron’s headache simply gets worse. Ken Livingstone’s likely defeat has been so well advertised that no-one can see it as an “upset” for Ed Miliband. It is priced into expectations now. But people – well, Tories in particular – will see Boris bucking the national trend, persuading a leftish metropolis that he’s alright really and beating a weak Labour candidate. That highlights the question of why Cameron keeps failing to do the same.

This is all exceedingly bad for the Lib Dems. In recent weeks I’ve noticed more confidence on the Labour side that Nick Clegg’s party is irredeemably stuffed. Tories too are privately saying that they can’t really see any viable electoral escape routes for their coalition partner. In the past, whenever a delegation of irate MPs has challenged Cameron to choose between his coalition partners and his party, he has sided with the latter. The pressure on Cameron to assert a more robust Conservative identity – which comes increasingly from liberal Tories as well as the right – combined with a growing Labour appetite for “finishing the job” of crushing Clegg means the third party could be about to face a murderous squeeze.

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

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OK, let's do this: who REALLY won Legs-It? An exclusive investigation

Look, some of you just aren't treating this question with the seriousness it deserves. 

This morning, the Daily Mail front page dared to look past the minutiae of Brexit - can my EU partner still live here? Why is my holiday so expensive? Should we be worried that David Davis looks like a man who's ended up a minister because he lost a bet? - to ask the really big question. 

Yes, indeed. Who is Top of the Tibia? Who shines in the shin department? Which of these impressive, powerful women has lower limbs which best conform to our arbitrary beauty standards? 

In the accompanying article, Sarah Vine (herself the owner of not one, but TWO lower limbs) wrote that the women put on a show of unity with "two sets of hands clasped calmly on the arms of their respective chairs", disdaining the usual diplomatic practice of accompanying discussions about Article 50 with a solemn, silent re-enactment of the Macarena.

Vine adds: "But what stands out here are the legs – and the vast expanse on show. There is no doubt that both women consider their pins to be the finest weapon in their physical arsenal. Consequently, both have been unsheathed." That's right, people: Theresa May has been unafraid to wear a skirt, rather than a pair of trousers with one leg rolled up like LL Cool J. A departure for Mrs May, to be sure, but these are uncertain times and showing off just one calf might see the stock markets plunge.

The prime minister has come to the bold decision that her legs are the "finest weapons in her physical armoury", when others might argue it's the sharp, retractable venom-filled spurs on her fore-limbs. (Oh wait, my mistake. That's the duck-billed platypus.)

As ever, the bien-pensant left is squawking about sexism and avoiding the real issue: who really won Legs-it? Well, there will be no handwringing over how this is a belittling way to treat two female politicians here, thank you very much. We shall not dwell on the fact that wearing a skirt while doing politics is not really remarkable enough to merit a front page, oh no. Instead, we shall bravely attempt to answer that Very Important Question. 

Who really won Legs-it? 

1. David Cameron

We might not know who won Legs-It, but let's be honest - we all know who lost. David Cameron here has clearly concluded that, much like Andrew Cooper's pre-referendum polling results, his legs are best hidden away while everyone politely pretends they don't exist. 

Legs-It Rating: 2/10

2. Michael Gove

Fun fact: Michael Gove's upper thighs are equipped with sharp, retractable claws, which aid him in knifing political rivals in the back.

Legs-It Rating: 8/10

3. David Davis

Mr Davis's unusually wide stance here suggests that one leg doesn't know what the other is doing. His expression says: this walking business is more difficult than anyone let on, but I mustn't let it show. Bad legs are better than no legs.  

Legs-It Rating: 6/10

4. Boris Johnson

Real talk: these legs don't really support Boris Johnson, they're just pretending they do to advance their career. 

Legs-It Rating: 6/10

5. George Osborne

Take in these long, cool pins. These are just two out of George Osborne's six legs. 

Legs-It Rating: 9/10

6. Liam Fox

In the past, Liam Fox has faced criticism for the way his left leg follows his right leg around on taxpayer-funded foreign trips. But those days are behind him now.

Legs-It Rating: 10/10

7. Nigel Farage

So great are the demands on the former Ukip leader's time these days, that his crotch now has a thriving media career of its own, independent from his trunk and calves. Catch it on Question Time from Huddersfield next month. 

Legs-It Rating: 7/10

Conclusion

After fearlessly looking at nine billion photos of legs in navy trousers, we can emphatically conclude that THEY ARE ALL BASICALLY THE SAME LEG. Life is great as a male politician, isn't it?

I'm a mole, innit.