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.

Photo: Getty
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Michel Barnier is Britain's best friend, but the Brexiteers are too shallow to notice

The right's obsession with humilating a man who should be a great British asset is part of why negotiations are in a mess. 

Sam Coates of the Times has the inside track on what Theresa May is planning to say in her big speech in Florence tomorrow: a direct appeal to the leaders of the European Union’s member states over the head of Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator.

I explained some of the problems with this approach in my morning briefing earlier today, but just to reiterate: the major difficulty is that Barnier’s mandate as a negotiator hasn’t emerged fully formed from the mind of some scheming bureaucrat in the European Commissio, but after discussion and agreement by the heads of member states. There are problems with the EU approach to sequencing talks, but the chances of changing it by appealing to the people who set it in the first place seems unlikely, to put it mildly.  

Barnier seems to occupy a strange position in the demonology of right-wing Brexiteers, I suspect largely due to ignorance about how the EU works, and in some cases Francophobia. The reality is that Barnier is the single politician outside of the United Kingdom with the most to lose from a bad Brexit deal.

If the Brexit talks end badly, then that will be the first line of Barnier’s obituary. Back in his native France, the centre-right is in opposition and none of the candidates vying to lead the Republicans are are going to give him a big domestic job to save his reputation.

His dream of parlaying a successful turn as the EU27’s chief negotiator into running the Commission relies not only on the talks succeeding, but him cultivating a good relationship with the heads of government across the EU27. In other words: for Barnier to get what he wants, he needs both to secure a good deal and to keep to the objectives set for him by the heads of member states. A good deal for all sides is a great deal for Barnier. 

As a result, the Brexit elite ought to see Barnier as what he really is: their best friend on the other side of the table. Instead, they are indulging in fantasies about tricking Barnier, undermining Barnier, and overcoming Barnier. In short, once again, they are bungling Brexit because they don’t want to think about it or approach it seriously. 

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