Lib Dems hit a new poll low

Support for Clegg’s party falls to just 8 per cent – the lowest level in 20 years.

There's no chance of the coalition's tuition fees bill being defeated in the Commons this afternoon, but Nick Clegg's big day hasn't got off to a good start. The latest YouGov poll puts the Lib Dems on just 8 per cent, their lowest level of support in any survey since 1990.

As ever, one should add the caveat that this could be an outlier, but it will certainly concentrate MPs' minds ahead of the vote. Several have majorities smaller than the number of students and prospective students in their constituencies. If repeated at an election on a uniform swing, the latest figures would reduce Clegg's party to a rump of just ten seats.

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Latest poll (YouGov/Sun): Labour majority of 2

It's the sense that the Lib Dems played fast and loose with the voters, rather than the decision to raise tuition fees itself, that is proving truly toxic for the party. The memory of Clegg's more-pious-than-thou act is still fresh enough for voters to be outraged by his policy reversal. As the FT's Alex Barker noted recently, the Lib Dem leader missed multiple opportunities to avoid this fate.

New Statesman poll of polls

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Hung parliament, Labour 9 seats short

The Lib Dems must have known that their manifesto promise to phase out tuition fees would not survive a hung parliament. Indeed, there was every possibility that they would be forced to raise them. But still they chose to sign a specific (and highly publicised) NUS pledge for crude electoral purposes.

Clegg's subsequent decision to take "full ownership" of the coalition programme (perhaps his greatest mistake) meant that abstention was no longer a credible option. And, don't forget, a mass abstention would still have broken the election pledge to vote against any increase in fees.

The dizzying range of justifications since offered for the party's U-turn (the Greek crisis, the state of the public finances, the coalition agreement, the "progressive" nature of the new policy) has only further antagonised voters. The Lib Dems have alieanted swaths of their natural supporters. As things stand, there's little to suggest they'll win them back.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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