The Lib Dems haven't retoxified the Tories' brand - they did that all themselves

As long as the Tories are directing their fire at UKIP and trying to attract their core vote back, they will continue to remind everyone that they are the nasty party.

Oh dear, I think the normally inestimable (for a Tory) Tim Montgomerie has had a bit of a senior moment. Writing in the Times yesterday, Tim laid the blame for the news that voters believe the Tories would have been very much nastier if they were governing on their own firmly at the feet of the Lib Dems. Apparently a few jibes from Vince and a list of the things we’ve stopped them doing in government have recontaminated the Tory brand.

Now, while there may be an element of truth to this, and I’m pretty sure Tim is now on top of Ryan Coetzee’s Christmas card list, I’m afraid the real reason lies closer to home; The Tories have done it to themselves.

Partly this is because of an endless stream of Conservatives who keep telling the world in general how we in the Lib Dems stop them doing what they really want to do. Eric Pickles is especially good at this. Maybe he’s the portrait in the attic to Tim Montgomerie’s Dorian Gray?

But it’s more than that. It’s also because they then tell the world just what they’ve got in mind. It wasn’t the Lib Dems who persuaded Theresa 'safe hands' May to announce that she wanted to launch an immigration bill that would  "create a really hostile environment for illegal migrants", leading the Institute of Directors to declare in response "It is pure sophistry to manipulate immigration figures by shooing to the door highly-trained international students with MBAs to make way for unskilled migrants from the EU."

Nor was it the Lib Dems who ran the 'racist van’ posters. The Tories didn’t even bother to tell us that was happening. Nor did we suggest they should be using words like 'scroungers' and 'skivers'. And it’s not all one-way traffic on the jibes front either - is it Mr Shapps?

But of course, there is a reason why the Tories have reverted to type and started dishing out the tough talk. It’s not the Lib Dems they’re worried about. It’s UKIP. Which is presumably why their hug-a-hoodie oak tree logo has metamorphosed into a Union Jack Bouffant, circa Thatcher 1983. And as long as the Tories are directing their fire at UKIP and trying to attract their core vote back, they will continue to remind everyone that they are the nasty party.

Frankly, Tim, that’s a lot more of a problem for you than a few Vince Cable jokes.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Michael Gove, Theresa May and George Osborne listen to David Cameron speak at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war