Clegg pours cold water on Cable’s “progressive majority”

The Lib Dem leader dismisses those who “still dream of a progressive alliance”.

It is somehow typical of Nick Clegg's fate that a speech ostensibly designed to distance himself from David Cameron has already been defined by the phrase "muscular liberalism". After all, it was that same clunky label which Cameron used to describe his approach to multiculturalism in the speech that angered so many in Clegg's party.

Based on the extracts I've seen, the Lib Dem leader's address on "The Coalition and Liberal Politics" will be dominated by the argument that the coaliton is one of "necessity, not of conviction", a temporary alliance rather than an ideological union.

He will say:

There has also been some talk of a so-called centre-right "realignment" since the formation of the current coalition. This is just nonsensical and naive. As I said earlier, this is a coalition of necessity, not of conviction. Realignment consists in practice of two-party political system continued by other means. It is a polite euphemism used by people who want to continue the fight between one gang and the other gang – with us as a temporary recruit to one side. I didn't come into politics to simply replicate the two-party system under the guise of realignment. That's not my definition of pluralism.

Yet the difficulty for Clegg is that, like Cameron, he has frequently given the impression that he is happier sharing power with the Conservatives than he would be governing alone. The foreword to the coalition agreement, for instance, declared:

We have found that a combination of our parties' best ideas and attitudes has produced a programme for government that is more radical and comprehensive than our individual manifestos.

All the same, it's safe to conclude that we won't see a Tory-Lib Dem pact or anything like it at the next general election. But perhaps the most notable thing about Clegg's speech is the scepticism, and even contempt, with which he treats the idea of a "progressive alliance".

"There are still those who dream of a so-called 'progressive alliance'," he will say, "forgetting that Labour had 13 years to make some moves in that direction and never quite seemed to get around to it until, in desperation, they tried to cling to power last year."

That's a none-too-subtle rebuke to those such as Vince Cable and Chris Huhne who boasted that the adoption of the Alternative Vote would finally make the dream of a "progressive majority" a reality. It's also yet more evidence that Clegg is in no mood to forge the roots of a future alliance with Labour.

The Liberal Democrats, he insists, will stand their ground "in the liberal centre of British politics", neither the "anti-Tory party [nor] the anti-Labour pary". Once more, there is an obvious contrast with Cable, who argued that AV would prevent another Conservative century.

It's a bold declaration by Clegg and one, you feel, that won't do his potential challengers on the left any harm.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.