Why, despite everything, the Lib Dems are still set to win Eastleigh

A new poll from Lord Ashcroft putting the Lib Dems five points ahead in the by-election shows that local issues continue to take precedence over national ones.

After one of the worst weekends of press coverage for the Lib Dems in recent history, the party will be relieved that it is still on course to win in Eastleigh on Thursday. The final poll of the campaign, conducted by Lord Ashcroft (profiled by Andrew Gimson in this week's NS), puts the Lib Dems on 33 per cent (+2), five points ahead of the Tories, who are down to six points to 28 per cent, with UKIP in third place on 21 per cent (+8) and Labour a distant fourth on 12 per cent (-7). The fieldwork took place between Friday and Sunday, so after the Rennard story broke, although it is worth noting that the most damaging front pages for the party didn't appear until Monday following Clegg's admission that he was aware of "indirect and non-specific concerns" about the Lib Dem peer. 

But even with this proviso, it appears unlikely that the scandal will swing the contest in the Tories' favour. The reason, as I suggested yesterday, is that local issues continue to take precedence over national ones. Ashcroft's poll shows that the most important factor in determining how people will vote is "getting the best local MP". Nearly half of all voters (45 per cent) and 65 per cent of Lib Dems cite this as the main influence on their decision. Significantly, then, the Lib Dems enjoy a 19-point lead on "understanding the Eastleigh constituency and representing local people in parliament", with 40 per cent of all voters and 90 per cent of Lib Dems awarding them this accolade. 

Also in the Lib Dems' favour is that a majority of voters (55 per cent), including 47 per cent of Conservative supporters, say that they expect the party to win, a factor that, as Ashcroft suggests, may heighten the attraction of "a nothing-to-lose vote for UKIP". But few ever got rich betting on by-elections, and the poll shows that the potential for an upset remains; a total of 27 per cent of voters remain undecided. The Tories, for whom defeat would be written up as a humiliating failure (even if, as the poll suggests, voters are unmoved by the Huhne and Rennard scandals), have every incentive to fight to the death. 

Nick Clegg and Liberal Democrat Eastleigh by-election candidate Mike Thornton visit the Ageas Bowl - home of Hampshire Cricket Club. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.