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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.