The Lib Dems' poll woes continue

Why weak poll ratings will strengthen Clegg's hand ahead of the Budget.

Nick Clegg may have enjoyed a more favourable press recently but the Sunday polls make grim reading for the Lib Dem leader. A ComRes poll puts Clegg's party on 10 per cent, while the latest YouGov poll has them on just seven per cent (their joint lowest rating since the general election), with Ukip snapping at their heels on six per cent. If repeated on a uniform swing at the election, the YouGov figues would reduce the Lib Dems to a rump of nine seats. The much-touted "differentiation strategy" has yet to bear fruit.

Ahead of the Budget, however, low poll ratings are something of a blessing for Clegg. The weaker the Lib Dems' poll ratings, the stronger his negotiating hand. As James Forsyth reports in today's Mail on Sunday, the Tories are fearful that the Lib Dems could exit the coalition as early as the start of 2014 (a possibility increased by poor poll ratings) and are determined to keep them on board. In this case, that means giving Clegg at least some of what he wants in the Budget.

The Lib Dem leader is still pushing for an accelerated increase in the personal allowance (with the added support of Ed Balls) funded by a £16bn package of tax rises on the wealthy. On Monday night, David Laws, the Tories' favourite Lib Dem (and the only Lib Dem backbencher not to have rebelled in this parliament), will return to the fray, giving a major interview to Newsnight and supporting Clegg's demands, including the introduction of a "mansion tax" on properties worth more than £2m.

At present, it seems likely that Osborne will offer an accelerated increase in the personal allowance, which is due to rise from £7,475 to £8,105 this April, without making the full leap to £10,000. This will be funded by clamping down on tax avoidance (Osborne could introduce a "general anti-avoidance rule", a law that would require corporations to receive clearance from HM Revenue and Customs on their tax plans before implementing them) and by closing various loopholes, rather than a mansion tax. The Lib Dems have yet to convince their coalition partners of the merits of taxing wealth more heavily and income more lightly.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.