The Lib Dems hit another poll low

How support for the Lib Dems fell from 34 per cent to 7 per cent in just ten months.

Chris Huhne's prediction that Liberal Democrat support would fall to 5 per cent as a result of the government's austerity measures looks ever more accurate. The latest YouGov survey puts Nick Clegg's party on just 7 per cent, their lowest rating since 1990. 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.

As the graph below shows, in less than ten months, Lib Dem support has fallen from a peak of 34 per cent during the height of Cleggmania to 7 per cent.

LD

(All figures from YouGov)

The party's new poll low coincides with an approval rating of -20 for the coalition, the lowest yet recorded. But with the Conservatives on 39 per cent (3 points higher than at the general election), it's Nick Clegg's party that is suffering the greatest damage.

The Lib Dems' decision to abandon three of their key election pledges – opposition to a VAT increase, higher tuition fees and early spending cuts – has, unsurprisingly, alienated millions of those who voted for them at the election.

Simon Hughes's argument in this week's NS that the Lib Dems are now the "constructive progressives" of British politics is not without merit. His party can take much of the credit for measures such as the pupil premium, the abolition of child detention and the repeal of identity cards. Today's announcement by Nick Clegg on libel reform is another example of a progressive policy that the Lib Dems' presence in government is allowing them to introduce.

Clegg's ultimate hope is that his party will share credit with the Conservatives for restoring the British economy to health. But should support for the Lib Dems continue to plummet, an increasingly restive party may decide that's not a gamble worth taking.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.