The Lib Dem leadership must stop deluding itself over secret courts

Every wing, arm and leg of the party is livid about this. Clegg can't shrug the defeat off.

Last week, as ever before spring conference, every interviewer asked Lib Dem activists the same question – 'what’s this year's row going to be about?' This time, the media gave us standard responses as well: Huhne, Rennard or "Plan V" for the economy.

And all week, to a general response of rolling eyes, activists told them the same answer: secret courts.
No one was interested. No one cared. 'Aren’t you more bothered that your president called you cockroaches and nutters?' was the standard response. No, not at all – actually that’s more of a badge of pride. We care about secret courts.
 
The clues were there. "The day the party fell out of love with the coalition", wrote Liberator magazine after so many of our MPs defied Lib Dem policy and trooped through the lobbies to support the Justice and Security Bill. "There is no getting away from the fact that there is a huge gap between what all but 7 MPs (and a few absentees) did last night and what most activists wanted them to do", wrote Lib Dem Voice. And 100-plus activists signed a letter to the press saying the bill was plain wrong (I was proud to be one of them). But largely, I suspect, because no one asked Nick about it on ‘Call Clegg’, both the media and the leadership thought it was a non-issue. Big mistake.
 
Nick appeared unprepared for questions on it in his Q&A on Saturday, his answers throwing numerous straw men up and being quickly battered down. In the least surprising turn of events of the weekend, it was announced that the #secretcourts debate had won the ballot to be the first emergency motion of the conference. Then the eminent human rights lawyer, Dinah Rose, announced she was quitting the party over secret courts. And finally, we saw one of the most respected and admired campaigners in the party, Jo Shaw, resign in the emergency debate in one of the best speeches made from the floor in a long time. It’s worth watching. Needless to say, the motion opposing secret courts was overwhelmingly carried. 

According to the prominent Lib Dem blogger Charlotte Henry, a source close to the leader expressed the view that the secret courts debacle didn’t really matter "because nobody in the real world cares". How wrong headed can they be?

Every wing, arm and leg of the party is livid about this. They won’t win another Eastleigh without the activists – and there’s now a move by activists to refuse to support any parliamentary candidate who wandered through the yes lobby the other week. That’s how seriously people take it.

The leadership are no doubt sitting at home, cursing Jo Shaw’s name and wondering why the grass roots aren’t busy repeating the mantra set down from now till 2015 rather than what we are saying – "no to secret courts".

It’s because we are liberals. And we are democrats. And Nick – we’re against this sort of thing.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg makes his keynote speech at the Liberal Democrat spring conference on 10 March 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.