Vince, endless elephants and the Lib Dem manifesto

Election 2010: Guffwatch!

There were so many elephants in Vince Cable's speech at the Lib Dem manifesto launch, you felt you might be crushed at any moment.

There was an "elephant in the room", an elephant that wasn't being confronted and, of course, the "elephant man" himself: Vince. I love it when a speech hits on a metaphor and doesn't just run with it, but leaps, bounds, sprints and pirouettes a marathon, clutching the metaphor to its chest like a gold medal.

(Clegg tried to capitalise on Vince's elephants: "Thank you, The Elephant Man." Oh, Nick. The joke had already been crushed into submission. But good on you for attempting to resurrect it for the benefit of a silently unamused audience who had already been all elephanted out.)

But the Lib Dems were trying to be much more serious and specific than the "it's all fine, really" Tories and Labour: their manifesto has real numbers on page 100, to which Clegg directed his audience like an eager schoolteacher, holding aloft his manifesto like a textbook.

The point is that Clegg has a plan, not just a promise. (Although his plan sometimes sounds remarkably familiar. His one-word summary? "Fairness." His aim? To put "power back into people's hands". Thank you, Labour, thank you, Tories.)

"These are promises you can trust," he said, forgetting that he was all about plans, not promises. When is a plan not a promise, or a promise a plan? Who can tell . . .

Anyway, Clegg was all about optimism. Hope. The future. Candour, yes. Oh, and magic:

We can turn anger into hope, frustration into ambition, recession into opportunity for everyone.

It's practically alchemy! A new strand of policy for the Lib Dems, but who says some 17th-century shape-shifting can't be a major factor in this election? It was the one thing missing, in my opinion.

And then he was off with a trumpety-trump trump, trump, trump. And an "ain't". As in: "I hear the Conservatives say they want to ring-fence the NHS. They ain't!" Yeesh.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.