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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.