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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses