The Tories' "decapitation" strategy is likely to backfire

And why are the Tories so keen to oust Ed Balls if he would trigger a Labour civil war?

In the wake of the Lib Dem surge (which shows little sign of abating) it looks like the Tories have all but given up on certain seats. The party has decided to scale back its campaign against the Lib Dems and instead aggressively target up to 20 more Labour seats.

Here's what a senior Conservative strategist told the Telegraph: "As one door closes with the surge in Liberal Democrat support, so another door has opened with the collapse in Labour support." Another said: "We have completely ripped up our plans and changed strategy in order to keep up with the changing situation out there."

This approach is at least consistent with electoral reality. Recent polling in Lib Dem-Tory marginals suggests that Nick Clegg's party will keep almost all of the 23 Lib Dem seats David Cameron needs to win for a majority.

But the decision to adopt what amounts to a "decapitation" strategy, targeting cabinet heavyweights including Ed Balls (notional majority: 9,784), Jack Straw (notional majority: 8,016) and John Denham (notional majority: 8,484), looks like a misjudgement.

As the Lib Dems learnt to their cost in 2005, if you announce your targets in advance, you look rather foolish if you then fail to defeat them. The strategy may have the potential benefit of diverting Labour resources away from less prominent candidates but it's still a risky enterprise.

Meanwhile, in the case of Balls, who George Osborne flagged up as target in a recent campaign bulletin, i'm confused. Tories like Michael Gove never cease reminding us that Balls is a Brownite tribalist whose leadership ambitions could plunge Labour into civil war. So why, in this case, are they so keen to oust him?

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.