Why the Lib Dems' funding crisis could end the coalition early

Faced with mounting debts, the party may be forced to leave government in order to reclaim the "short money" provided to opposition parties.

Whether or not Joan Edwards's £520,000 bequest was intended for the government of the day or whichever party formed the government, there's no doubt that the Lib Dems could have done with the money (they received £99,423 based on their share of MPs and ministers). The party ran a deficit of £410,951 last year (the only one of the three main parties to do so) largely due to a 13% fall in its membership to 42,501, a decline of 35% since 2010 (when it stood at 65,038) and the lowest annual figure in the party's 23-year history.

While the party insists that its Finance & Administration Committee "has taken steps to ensure that satisfactory surpluses will be achieved in 2013 and 2014" (having previously projected a surplus of £200,000 for 2012), this will likely mean cutting back on campaign spending, something the party can ill afford to do given the political obstacles it faces and the decimation of its councillor base (many of whom pay a tithe of 10% to their local parties). 

Lib Dem finances have also been hit by the loss of "short money", the state funding made available to assist opposition parties with their costs. The party received £1.7m from this source in 2009-10 and its removal forced it to make more than 20 staff redundant. Over the five year parliament, the loss amounts to nearly £9m. 

With an eye to this, one scenario put to me by several in Westminster is that the Lib Dems will ultimately be forced to return to opposition in advance of the 2015 general election in order to reclaim the short money they'll need to mount anything like an adequate campaign. 

It's worth noting that before the defeat of the boundary changes in January, there was talk of the Tories doing a "cash-for-seats" deal with the Lib Dems under which the party would receive millions in state funding in return for supporting the review. It didn't come to pass (would anything have looked more grubby?) but it shows that the issue hasn't escaped the attention of Conservative ministers. Rather than an epic tussle over policy, the coalition could yet fall based on the inescapable fact that the Lib Dems are running out money. 

Nick Clegg makes a speech at the G8 Open for Growth - Trade, Tax andTransparency conference at Lancaster House in central London on June 15, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear