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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FTSE 100 plunges after Theresa May signals hard Brexit ahead

The Prime Minister is to lay out her Brexit plan later today. 

The FTSE 100 and the FTSE 250 plummeted this morning after the Prime Minister signalled Brexit will mean leaving the single market.

Theresa May is expected to rule out "partial membership" or any other kind of "half-in, half-out" deal with the EU in a speech later today.

The FTSE 100, the index of the UK's 100 biggest companies, and the FTSE 250 both fell more than 0.3 per cent immediately after opening. 

The worst performers included the housebuilder Barratt Developments, consumer goods tester Intertek and the mining company BHP.

Stock markets have been buoyant since Brexit, in part because many of Britain's biggest companies are international and benefit from a devalued pound. 

However, while markets fell, the pound crept up against the dollar, to $1.21. 

Critics of the Prime Minister say she is sacrificing the economy to prioritise immigration controls.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady warned: "If we leave the single market, working people will end up paying the price. It'd be bad for jobs, for work rights & for our living standards."

According to the Office for National Statistics, inflation rose from 1.2 per cent in November to 1.6 per cent in December. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.