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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In the row over public sector pay, don't forget that Theresa May is no longer in charge

Downing Street's view on public sector pay is just that – Conservative MPs pull the strings now.

One important detail of Theresa May’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party went unnoticed – that it was not May, but the Conservatives’ Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, who signed the accord, alongside his opposite number, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson.

That highlighted two things: firstly that the Conservative Party is already planning for life after May. The deal runs for two years and is bound to the party, not the leadership of Theresa May. The second is that while May is the Prime Minister, it is the Conservative Party that runs the show.

That’s an important thing to remember about today’s confusion about whether or not the government will end the freeze in public sector pay, where raises have been capped at one per cent since 2012 and have effectively been frozen in real terms since the financial crisis.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, signalled that the government could end the freeze, as did Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary. (For what it’s worth, Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s chief of staff, said before he took up the post that he thought anger at the freeze contributed to the election result.)

In terms of the government’s deficit target, it’s worth remembering that they can very easily meet Philip Hammond’s timetable and increase public sector pay in line with inflation. They have around £30bn worth of extra wriggle room in this year alone, and ending the pay cap would cost about £4.1bn.

So the Conservatives don’t even have to U-turn on their overall target if they want to scrap the pay freeze.

And yet Downing Street has said that the freeze remains in place for the present, while the Treasury is also unenthusiastic about the move. Which in the world before 8 June would have been the end of it.

But the important thing to remember about the government now is effectively the only minister who isn’t unsackable is the Prime Minister. What matters is the mood, firstly of the Cabinet and of the Conservative parliamentary party.

Among Conservative MPs, there are three big areas that, regardless of who is in charge, will have to change. The first is that they will never go into an election again in which teachers and parents are angry and worried about cuts to school funding – in other words, more money for schools. The second is that the relationship with doctors needs to be repaired and reset – in other words, more money for hospitals.

The government can just about do all of those things within Hammond’s more expansive target. And regardless of what Hammond stood up and said last year, what matters a lot more than any Downing Street statement or Treasury feeling is the mood of Conservative MPs. It is they, not May, that pulls the strings now.

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.

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