A night at the Spectator's parliamentarian of the year awards

Osborne and Alexander could become Britain's most promising comedy double act.

To the Royal Hospital Gardens in Chelsea last night for the dinner to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Spectator's parliamentarian of the year awards (though there was some dispute over whether it was in fact the 25th anniversary; former Spectator editor Charles Moore claimed it was not). The venue was a cavernous, dimly-lit marquee, with the obligatory soft rock music accompanying the announcement of each winner and illuminated stars affixed to the ceiling - it had the feel less of a grand country house party than the wedding of a self-made Essex car dealer's favourite daughter but with the furniture hired from Ikea. "This tent is so lavish," said Nick Clegg, winner of politician of the year, "that it deserves Vince Cable's mansion tax." Meanwhile, the rain beat down on the canvas roof.

My favourite line of what was a splendid evening was from Danny Alexander. He and George Osborne received the award for "odd couple"; Alexander was wearing his Highland tartan, with a tastefully cut kilt. With Osborne at his side, he began thus: "It's obvious who's wearing the trousers in this relationship." An old joke, but nicely appropriate on this occasion. To which Osborne quipped, in reference to the topsy-turvy world of coalition politics, that "he's rolling back the state and I'm defending the Euro!" These two have the potential to become Britain's most promising comedy double act.

David Cameron, cautiously wearing a lounge suit rather than the requested black tie, was guest of honour and gave out the awards. He spoke with his usual fluency, teasing his new-found love Nick Clegg over his considerable personal wealth - and the many mansions in the family. Cameron referred to himself as a "middle-class boy from Berkshire".

Although he was suffering from flu, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson was on hand to introduce each of the award-winners - as Andrew Neil reminded us in his opening address "these are parliamentary not political awards" -- and the list of winners was spread across the parties, with even a gong for Caroline Lucas.

Peter Hoskin has all the details over at the Coffee House.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.