Gove claims Clegg is blocking Tory policy due to Lib Dem leadership plot

Clegg's opposition to new childcare ratios is due to "a campaign" by Vince Cable's ally Lord Oakeshott to oust him, says Gove.

As he demonstrated on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, Michael Gove, a former Times journalist, has lost none of his talent for generating headlines. In the course of 10 minutes, he suggested that a Lib Dem leadership plot was the reason Nick Clegg was blocking plans to relax childcare ratios, confirmed that he would vote "no" if an EU referendum was held today and said that he would abstain when the Commons votes on a Tory amendment criticising the absence of a referendum bill from the Queen's Speech.

First, then, on Clegg and childcare. Gove suggested that his opposition to Liz Truss's plan was almost entirely due to the attempt by Vince Cable's ally Lord Oakeshott to oust him as leader. He said:

I don't think we can understand Nick Clegg's position without also appreciating the position that he's in because of internal Lib Dem politics...there's a campaign at the moment being led by Matthew Oakeshott, the Liberal Democrat in the Lords, to try to destabilise Nick Clegg because Matthew Oakeshott wants Vince Cable to succeed him

It's hardly a secret that Oakeshott wants Cable installed as Lib Dem leader but no Conservative cabinet minister has ever referred explicitly to this fact. Clegg, who outlined in detail his concerns over the childcare plans on his LBC show earlier this week, is likely to be furious at the suggestion that his position is motivated by politics, not principle.

But the mischievous Gove, artfully seeking to turn the conversation on to Lib Dem divisions, went on:

Nick, understandably, needs to show Lib Dems that he's fighting hard...you only need to look at the newspapers today to see that Lord Oakeshott is on maneouvres, he's trying to promote Vince. It's understandable that within the Lib Dems these things go on. Nick has to show a bit of leg, as it were, on these issues.

On Europe, asked if he would vote to leave the EU if a referendum was held today (as the Mail on Sunday reported last year), Gove confirmed for the first time that he would. He told James Lansdale:

Yes [I would vote to leave the EU], I'm not happy with our position in the European Union

After Nigel Lawson's intervention earlier this week, Gove's words represent another significant escalation of tensions over this issue. Tim Montgomerie lists Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers, Chris Grayling, Justine Greening, Philip Hammond, Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude as other "definite or probable EU Outers". All of these ministers (and others) will now come under pressure to say whether they, like Gove, would also vote "no" in a referendum today.

Gove added that while there would be "certain advantages" to being outside the EU (another significant admission), "the best deal" would be for Britain to successfully renegotiate its membership. David Cameron's hope is that the plausible threat of withdrawal will make it easier to achieve that.

Update: Here's how Oakeshott has responded to Gove.

Education Secretary Michael Gove speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.