The Lib Dems are now in danger of excessive optimism

Even on a generous reading, the party is still on course to lose nearly half of its 57 seats.

They're trailing UKIP in the polls and rarely score above 10 points. They've lost a third of their members since 2010 (down from 65,038 to 42,501) and more than a thousand of their hard-won councillors. They ran a deficit of £410,951 last year and are struggling to raise the funds required to fight an adequate general election campaign. So why, ahead of the opening of their conference in Glasgow tomorrow, are the Lib Dems so cheerful?

The first reason is that the next election appears increasingly likely to result in another hung parliament. While the party could yet face a wounding left-right split if forced to choose between the Tories and Labour (both of whom could conceivably win enough seats to form a majority government with Lib Dem support), the thought of again holding the balance of power and negotiating concessions (proportional representation for local government!) is an intoxicating one.

The second is that the party believes both that a significant number of its 2010 supporters will return to the fold before 2015 and that it is performing better than the headline figures suggest. Were the results of the latest YouGov poll (which has them on 8 per cent) replicated on a uniform swing, the Lib Dems would retain just 17 of their 57 seats. But as the party's activists rejoice in pointing out, their vote is holding up, and even improving, in their heartlands. The Eastleigh by-election, which the party won comfortably in the most adverse circumstances (recall the misdemeanours of the two Chris's: Huhne and Rennard), is offered as ultimate proof that they are not heading for electoral apocalypse. Where the party is well organised and where it can appeal for tactical votes from Labour supporters (the Tories are in second place in 37 of the 57 Lib Dem seats), it can still win. It is this faith that explains why those calling for Nick Clegg's head are still limited to maverick non-MPs such as Lembit Opik and Lord Oakeshott. 

But if they were once suffering from an excess of pessimism, many Lib Dems now appear overly optimistic. Even if their vote share rises to 15% before 2015, the laws of arithmetic mean they cannot expect to win many more than 30 seats. The party's intention to fight the next election as "57 Eastleighs" ignores the fact that this simply isn't possible. While the Lib Dems were able to pour thousands of activists and cabinet ministers into the constituency, they won't be able to do so when fighting on 56 other fronts at the same time. After decades of advancement, the party is still on course for its worst performance since 1992, losing around half of its seats. If it isn't dreading the evening of 7 May 2015, it really should be. 

Nick Clegg leaves Number 10 Downing Street to attend Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.