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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Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era