How can the Lib Dems reverse the slide in their support?

Latest poll puts the Lib Dems down 5 points to 18 per cent.

In the end, just two Lib Dems voted against the coalition's VAT rise -- Bob Russell and Mike Hancock. Nick Clegg will be relieved that so few chose to rebel against a tax increse that, after all, his own party campaigned against during the election.

But there's little comfort for the Lib Dems in today's Independent/ComRes poll, the third in quick succession to show a slide in their support since the Budget. The poll puts Clegg's party down 5 points at 18 per cent, with the Tories up 4 to 40 per cent and Labour up 1 to 31 per cent.

Contrary to expectations of some on the left, it is so far the Tories who are gaining at the Lib Dems' expense. So long as the elixir of electoral reform remains within their reach, the Lib Dems will want this coalition to work. But fears that they are the convenient fall guys for George Osborne's cuts are growing by the day. And the old excuse that the Lib Dems receive less airtime than the Tories and Labour no longer applies.

New Statesman Poll of Polls

Poll of Polls

Conservative majority of 12.

The challenge for Clegg is, as Philip Stephens writes in today's Financial Times, to find a story that "goes beyond the claim that his party is a civilising influence on the government".

The introduction of the Alternative Vote for Westminster elections, against the wishes of the Tories, would provide Clegg with just this -- one reason why the timing of the referendum is such a pressure point in the coalition.

In addition, as my colleague James Macintyre argued yesterday, when there is a resuffle, Clegg should push for more influential positions in the cabinet.

But above all, one feels that the Lib Dems need to find an issue, aside from electoral reform, on which they can clearly and publicly distinguish themselves from the Tories. It could be Afghanistan, it could be Trident, it could be inequality. Whatever it is, Clegg needs to find it -- and soon.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.