Why the Tories should welcome Clegg's left turn

If they are to remain the largest party after 2015, the Conservatives need the Lib Dems to win back left-leaning voters in Tory-Labour marginals.

Conservative MPs rarely need much prompting to lament the "curse of Clegg" but the Deputy PM's broadside this week against Michael Gove's free schools "ideology" has enraged them more than most. For them, this is the worst example yet of Clegg signing up to a policy and then petulantly rejecting it when he proves unable to live with its consequences (cf. the NHS reforms, the boundary changes, childcare ratios). 

Clegg's public revolt against Gove's reforms (most notably the use of unqualified teachers by free schools and their non-use of the national curriculum), in common with his appointment of Norman Baker as Home Office minister, is part of a conscious effort to differentiate his party from the Tories ahead of the general election. With the Lib Dems still rarely polling above 10%, Clegg is increasingly focused on winning back the left-leaning voters who defected to Labour almost immediately after the coalition was formed. And, if only for electoral reasons, the Conservatives should be cheering him on. 

If they are to remain the largest party after 2015 (the possibility of a majority being too small to be worth considering), the Tories need the Lib Dems to woo Labour voters in Tory-Labour marginals. At present, after the defection of around a quarter of 2010 Lib Dem voters to Labour, they stand to lose dozens of seats at the next election (the Corby by-election was an early warning) - there are 37 Conservative-Labour marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory.

This fact has often led Tories to wonder aloud whether a change of Lib Dem leader before 2015 is in their interests. The hope was that a social liberal alternative such as Vince Cable or Tim Farron could prompt the party's former supporters to return home from Labour. Tim Montgomerie told me last year that "a left-wing replacement" of Clegg in 2014 was "vital to Tory hopes". But the Eastleigh by-election victory, the return of economic growth and the prospect of another hung parliament have combined to secure his position. With no left-wing challenger available, the Tories should welcome the next best thing: a more left-wing Clegg. 

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

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