Are the Tories losing patience with Clegg?

Downing Street used to deal with Lib Dem "differentiation" with casual condescension. Now the tone i

There was an intriguing flicker of dissent on the government benches during Prime Minister's Questions today when Andrew George, a Liberal Democrat MP for West Cornwall, asked David Cameron if he would consider abandoning the bill containing controversial health reforms. (He won't.)

As rebellious interventions go it was fairly tame, since quite a lot of Tory MPs privately wish the bungled and unloved health reforms would go away. Still, it was a blunt display of Lib Dem assertiveness, which is, apparently the party's plan for 2012. As I wrote earlier this year, Lib Dem strategists have decided to treat Cameron's European veto -- a humiliation for the avowedly Europhile Nick Clegg -- as a licence to "dial up differentiation." In other words, with the Tories surging ahead in areas close to their hearts, it was time for Lib Dems to start making their voices heard a bit louder.

This new, slightly more churlish attitude to coalition is also the best context in which to see the emerging row over "Boris Island". the London mayor's vision of a floating airport in the Thames estuary. Cameron has said he is interested; Clegg was apparently all signed up. Now, suddenly, the Lib Dems have got cold feet. The Tory explanation -- delivered with some irritation -- is that the junior coalition partner doesn't want to go along with something that would boost Conservative chances in mayoral and London Assembly elections in May.

It is noteworthy that the Tories are responding to Lib Dem meddling with some fairly aggressive briefing. This is relatively new. In the past, Downing Street has been happy to have Tory backbenchers let off steam, complaining about the "yellow bastards" with whom they are trapped in partnership. But the standard response from Conservatives in government to Clegg and his team seeking credit for policy or boasting about how they killed Tory ideas always used to be carefully calibrated condescension. The line was that it was better to rise above such petty games. Towards the end of last year, this was upgraded to a more pointed "we don't think it really helps them much" -- the implication being that the Lib Dems embarrass themselves by point-scoring in coalition all the time.

Now it seems Number 10 is taking a more robust approach. The Telegraph's Ben Brogan has an illuminating insight in his column this morning, including some pretty terse remarks about Clegg, his party's uncollegiate tendencies and, astonishingly, his continental ancestry. A source close to the prime minister is reported noting that the Lib Dem leader is "quite foreign you know" adding that "no-one has noticed but there isn't much that is British about him."

It has been noted before that Clegg brings a continental approach to politics that doesn't always gel that well with Westminster's knockabout culture. But this attempt to portray his Europhilia as intrinsically suspect in some deeper sense represents a stepping up of internal coalition hostilities. The Lib Dems have long been amenable to a bit of casual Cameron-bashing on the side. The Tories mostly turned the other cheek. If both parties start hurling insults around things could quickly get out of hand.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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