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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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