Cable and Balls get cosy

Both appear on Andrew Marr show this morning

As journalist Paul Waugh tweeted shortly after the event: "Sight of Cable and Balls getting cosy on Marr sofa will infuriate several Tory MPs". The meeting of the two politicians was timely after the Shadow Chancellor's overtures to the Lib Dems, and Vince Cable in particular. In a column in the Sunday Mirror today, Ed Balls has written:

The country cannot afford to wait until the next election before we get a change of course. Because the longer ministers refuse to act, the more long-term damage will be done to our economy. That's why I want to work with other parties - including sensible people in the Government - on a new economic plan.

In his heart of hearts, Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable must know that Plan A is not working. After all, before the last election, he warned - with Labour - that David Cameron and George Osborne's policies would backfire. And sadly our warnings came true.

As well as confirming that a third runway with Heathrow "isn't going to happen", Cable, in his interview with Marr, chimed with Balls's rhetoric, saying that he was a man of "the centre left" who believes in "fairness and redistribution". Balls's response? "Sounds good to me".  

Business secretary Vince Cable. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.