A bad start to 2011 for Nick Clegg

A new poll puts the Lib Dems on just 8 per cent as divisions over control orders re-emerge.

A new poll puts the Lib Dems on just 8 per cent as divisions over control orders re-emerge.

If the Lib Dems were hoping that hostility towards them might have dissipated over the Christmas period, they'll be disappointed this morning. The first YouGov tracker poll of 2011 puts Nick Clegg's party on just 8 per cent, their joint lowest level of support since 1990.

Labour is still ahead of the Conservatives on 42 per cent, though support for the Tories remains surprisingly robust at 40 per cent. If repeated at a general election on a uniform swing, the latest figures would reduce the Lib Dems to a rump of just nine MPs.

Clegg will make his second visit to Oldham East and Saddleworth today, insisting that the by-election is a "two-horse race" between Labour and the Lib Dems. But with the Tories just 2,310 votes behind at the last election, the claim could yet return to haunt him. It wasn't so long ago that Clegg hubristically declared that the general election was a "two-horse race" between the Tories and the Lib Dems, only to win fewer seats than Charles Kennedy in 2005.

Meanwhile, despite the Sunday Times (£) claiming that the Lib Dem leader had "won" his battle to abolish control orders, this morning's papers suggest that the orders will be retained in some form. For Clegg, any compromise on civil liberties would be distinctly embarrassing.

In the case of the VAT rise and tuition fees, he could at least claim, however implausibly, that the £155bn Budget deficit made such decisions "unavoidable". But in the case of control orders, no such alibi is available to him. The retention of the orders would be a fundamental breach of principle.

As the new year begins and political hostilities resume, there are fewer reasons than ever for the Lib Dems to be cheerful.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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