Scottish Secretary and former Lib Dem chief whip Alistair Carmichael. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Alistair Carmichael could be the next Lib Dem leader

Having successfully transcended his party's left-right divide, the Scottish Secretary could be the man to hold the Lib Dems together after the next election.

Who will be the insurgent candidate when the Liberal Democrats finally decide to topple Nick Clegg? In recent times, it has appeared that the only way to win a party leadership election is to avoid having the baggage of a public profile while simultaneously working furiously behind the scenes. Ed Miliband seemingly came out of nowhere despite claiming the support of the biggest trade union in the UK the year before. The same goes for David Cameron. His rise, while first appearing shocking, was the result of a long slog by modernisers to prepare him for taking the leadership. When looking at the political landscape ahead, it seems clear who the Liberal Democrat equivalent candidate is:  little known MP Alistair Carmichael.

Securing victory for the Liberal Democrat corner over Scottish independence will be what raises him to prominence, in both Westminster village circles, and with the wider public. Don’t underestimate the emotional significance of that, even if the Lib Dems are more detached over questions of nationality. 

What will secure his place in the post-Clegg sweepstakes will be the overwhelming desire for the party to have a man to hold them together after the coalition falls apart. What he can do for the UK, he can for the inevitable infighting over the future direction of the party. Tim Farron is most often touted as the leader-in-waiting, but he only draws support from a certain left-leaning section of the party. Speaking to a campaign staffer in the party makes these concerns concrete: "There are a lot of Lib Dems out there who don’t want Tim Farron to be leader. When people say he is popular with the grassroots, they mean popular with the sandal wearers, but he’s not credible as a national political leader. He’s not a statesman." Vince Cable has more of the statesman about him, and still retains his status as the most popular Lib Dem with the public. Perhaps unfairly, though, many in the party fear another Ming Campbell, who was plagued by concerns over his age. 

With Farron, Cable and Chris Huhne ruled out (via HMP Wandsworth) the other standout candidates find themselves at the wrong end of the political spectrum. The Lib Dems have travelled a long way  from the years when they were an unambiguously centre-left party. Clegg has made their transformation into a party of the centre his defining mission in government. There are too many who suspect, for right or wrong, that someone from his wing of the party is comfortable with the Tories. This means the likes of Danny Alexander (who has a higher approval rating among ConservativeHome readers than their party chairman), Ed Davey and Norman Lamb are too chummy with their Conservative colleagues to provide the clean break the party will need.

Carmichael has managed to avoid falling prey to the left/right divide emerging more clearly in the party as it gets used to power. "He could be a compromise candidate… post-coalition we need someone to hold the party together. Alistair might be the guy," one Lib Dem told me. As chief whip for the Lib Dems before becoming Scottish Secretary, he will know where the bodies are buried. Not only did this position make building a relationship with all the MPs in the party compulsory, it also meant he commanded their respect. Don’t mess with Carmichael.

The fact his role was less visible also meant he managed to stay clear of scandals, whether over unpopular government policy, or the Rennard allegations. There has been no constant surveillance to make sure he toes the grassroots line on each and every issue (take one glance at Farron’s Twitter feed to see his constant posturing to members on there), but each and every time he appears on a media platform, he at least manages to secure the respect of the commentariat.

Oh, and not to mention he also holds the one of the safest Lib Dem seats in the country (Orkney & Shetland has been Liberal since Jo Grimond took the constituency in 1950). Without predicting how well the party's vote share will hold up at the next election, we assume that his position is secure. Many in the Lib Dems are hoping he can secure their future too.

Thomas Byrne is a reporter for Education Investor and Health Investor

Thomas Byrne is a reporter for Education Investor and Health Investor

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism