The Clegg effect in the Twittersphere

Lib Dem leader talk of Twitter. His party? Not so much.

Nick Clegg was the clear winner of Thursday night's debate as reflected in yesterday's (proper) ComRes poll and today's YouGov tracker.

What is also interesting to observe is how online attention turned sharply to the Liberal Democrat leader, if not his party.

 

According to our own analysis (see chart above), Nick Clegg was a lowly third in terms of Twitter mentions among the three party leaders the day before the debate. But in the run up to it and, more particularly, in the immediate aftermath his personal profile shot up. Indeed there was far more Twitter chatter about him than either David Cameron or Gordon Brown.

Mentions may equally be negative or positive but as a measure of public recognition, the rise will cheer the Lib Dems as much as the blogosphere, TV and newspaper verdict.

What is equally striking, however, is how little impact Clegg's performance has had on mentions of his party (see chart below). This may be a reflection on the increasing focus given to party leaders and perhaps matters little. The early opinion polls seem to suggest as much.

Nevertheless, it is crucial that Clegg's popularity translates into electoral success, particularly in the 20 key Lib Dem-Conservative marginals. In fact it matters as much to Labour as it does for the Lib Dems, because the Tories will struggle to gain an overall majority without those 20 seats. All of which helps explain why Labour spinners were being so nice about Clegg post-debate.

1. Party leaders: share of Twitter mentions - 14 April
David Cameron 34%
Gordon Brown 47%
Nick Clegg 19%

2. Party leaders: share of Twitter mentions - 15 -16 April
Nick Clegg 38%
Gordon Brown 32%
David Cameron 30%

3. Parties: share of Twitter mentions - 14 April
Conservatives 42%
Labour 33%
Lib Dems 25%

4. Parties: share of Twitter mentions - 15-16 April
Conservatives 42%
Labour 37%
Lib Dems 21%

Note: These numbers are based on how frequently parties and people were mentioned on Twitter between 14 and 16 April, with a number of adjustments to make sure that only mentions relating to the general election are considered. Mentions can be positive, negative or neutral, and should not be confused with popularity. The NS Digital Dashboard is powered by Resolver Systems.

 

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Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.