Lib Dems prepare to challenge Clegg over secret courts betrayal

Party members will support emergency motion opposing secret courts at this weekend's conference after just seven Lib Dem MPs voted against the bill.

There's disappointment and some anger among Lib Dem members this morning after just seven of the party's 57 MPs voted against the government's plans for secret courts last night. The party's new boy, Eastleigh MP Mike Thornton, had a legitimate excuse (he hasn't been sworn in yet) but the rest stand accused of ignoring the wishes of party members, who voted overwhelmingly to oppose the policy at last year's autumn conference. As Richard Morris wrote on The Staggers yesterday, after winning the ground war in Eastleigh, Lib Dem activists wanted "payback". 

Last night's rebellion may have been small but it was significant. Party president Tim Farron and deputy leader Simon Hughes were among those who voted in favour of Labour's amendments, including the introduction of a public interest test for secret courts, with Sarah Teather, Julian Huppert, Greg Mullholland, Mike Crockart and John Hemming joining them in the no lobby. As Stephen Tall notes at Lib Dem Voice, Teather, not the flavour of the month among progressives after her vote against equal marriage, posted this statement on her Facebook page:

I rebelled on a series of votes this evening on the Justice and Security Bill. Having spent most of my time in Parliament campaigning against rendition, guantanamo bay and torture I take a close interest in matters like this. My Libdem colleagues Julian Huppert and Mike Crockart have done a great job getting changes to the bill during the committee stage and there is no doubt it is a better bill, but I still didn’t feel the safeguards the Government has given on the use of secret courts were convincing enough.

The battle will now move to the party's spring conference in Brighton this weekend, where Lib Dem members will vote on an emergency motion tabled by activists calling for the party to reaffirm its opposition to secret courts.

After the party's by-election success, most have assumed that Nick Clegg will face an easier ride than in previous years. But the opposite is likely to be true. Had the party lost the seat, members may have closed ranks for fear of provoking an ever greater crisis. But victory in Eastleigh has encouraged a new mood of assertiveness among the grass roots. With activists also angered by the government's new backdoor NHS privatisation, expect fireworks this weekend. 

Nick Clegg speaks at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.