Would a new Lib Dem leader help the Tories win in 2015?

Why some Tories believe that the replacement of Clegg with Vince Cable or Tim Farron is essential to their election chances.

One of the reasons why some Conservatives believe it will be impossible for David Cameron to win a majority at the next election is the scale of the defection of Liberal Democrat supporters to Labour. If Ed Miliband's party hangs on to around a third of the Lib Dems' 2010 voters, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats at the next election - there are 37 Conservative-Labour marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory. In the 1980s, it was the formation of the Social Democratic Party and the resultant split in the centre-left vote that allowed Margaret Thatcher to win successive landslide victories. In 2015, the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats and the reunification of the left around Labour could bring Miliband to power.

This fact has led some Conservatives to wonder aloud whether a change of Liberal Democrat leader before 2015 is now in their interests. The hope is that a more left-wing leader such as Vince Cable or Tim Farron, both of whom have signalled their availability, could prompt the party's former supporters to return home from Labour. ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie recently told me that "a left-wing replacement" of Nick Clegg in 2014 was "vital to Tory hopes".

Those with an interest in a Lib Dem recovery have been encouraged by polls showing that the party would perform better with Cable as leader. A ComRes survey last September showed that support for the Lib Dems would rise to 18 per cent under Cable, compared to 14 per cent under Clegg. However, it is doubtful whether this bounce would last once Cable was forced to take responsibility for all coalition decisions (something he has skillfully avoided doing to date. Few would know, for instance, that it was Cable's department that introduced higher tuition fees) It is also the case that the party's former left-wing supporters, those who defected from Labour over Iraq and top-up fees, are likely to prove the hardest to win back.

But as we get closer to the election, this discussion will be had with increasing frequency in Lib Dem and Tory circles. If the Lib Dems are still flatlining at 10 per cent in the polls in 2014, it is hard to see the party not taking a gamble on an alternative leader. The dilemma for the Tories is whether to help shore up Clegg's position, for the sake of coalition unity, or to tacitly encourage a revolt against him.

A poll in 2012 suggested that Liberal Democrat support would increase to 18 per cent with Vince Cable as leader. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

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