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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories