Eastleigh shows why the Tories will struggle to avoid defeat in 2015

If the Lib Dems benefit from an incumbency factor and UKIP splits the right-wing vote, the Tories will be the big losers.

Nigel Farage is crowing about the Conservatives "splitting the UKIP vote", while the Lib Dems brag, "if the Tories can't beat us now, when can they?" Last night was not a good one for David Cameron. One should always be wary of extrapolating from by-elections, which are a famously poor predictor of general elections, but with this proviso, there are two reasons why Eastleigh bodes ill for the Tories' prospects of victory.

The first is that it suggests the Lib Dems will benefit from an incumbency factor in 2015. In those seats where the party is well organised and where it can appeal for tactical votes from Labour supporters, it can still win. This is largely a problem for the Tories, who are in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats, and whose hopes of a majority rest on taking as many as 20 seats off Clegg's party. Eastleigh suggests it will be much harder to dislodge "the yellow bastards" (as the Tories affectionately refer to their coalition partners) than they hoped.

To add to the Tories' woes, the likely collapse in the Lib Dem vote elsewhere will work to Labour's advantage in Conservative-Labour marginals, as Corby demonstrated. If this patten is repeated at the general election, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats - there are 37 Con-Lab marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory.

The second reason why Eastleigh is so troubling for the Tories is that it shows the UKIP problem hasn't gone away. Those who predicted that Cameron's promise of an in/out EU referendum would do little to dilute the appeal of the "none of the above" party were right to do so. UKIP may yet fail to win a single seat at the next general election but it will almost certainly improve on the 3.1 per cent of the vote it attracted in 2010. Again, this is primarily a problem for the Tories, whose voters still account for a greater share of UKIP support than the Lib Dems' or Labour's. At the last election, there were 21 seats in which the UKIP vote exceeded the Labour majority. The prospect of a surge in this number is the main reason why some Conservatives are already urging Cameron to look again at the possibility of a Tory-UKIP pact, an option flatly dismissed by Michael Gove on the Today programme this morning.

Weary of the shackles of coalition, Tory MPs are desperate for evidence that they can achieve the majority that eluded them in 2010. But the resilience of the Lib Dems and the continuing division of the right means the Tories' chances of outright victory are looking slimmer than ever today.

David Cameron with the Conservative Eastleigh by-election candidate Maria Hutchings. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution