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Elections this May will punch a lot of coalition bruises

Europe is half of the problem. Council seats being contested were last filled in 2010, when support for Tories and Lib Dems was highest.

Cameron and Clegg smiling
Happier times when coallition was a Rose Garden. Source: Getty

Elections to the European parliament on 22 May will be unusual to the extent that the run-up will include rather a lot of arguing about Europe. Naturally, Ukip wants to keep Brussels in the frame. Nigel Farage has made it his explicit ambition to cause an “earthquake” at Westminster by mobilising public euroscepticism behind his yellow-and-purple banner.

On this occasion – and in reversal of old reticence – the Lib Dems will also be running explicitly on their attitude to Europe, which is rather more enthusiastic than Ukip's. (The thinking behind this potentially hazardous gambit is the subject of my column in the magazine this week.)

Live TV debates between Farage and Nick Clegg will give the campaign more prominence than past MEP ballots. All of which means even less attention than usual is being paid to local council elections on the same day. But the interaction of the two votes will be interesting – and potentially problematic for the two coalition parties. If Ukip succeeds in mobilising a lot of well-motivated Brussels-bashers there is a good chance some of that Farageism will also be expressed as council losses for the Tories. 

That is why some Conservative associations, with the tacit support of MPs, are effectively campaigning for a split ticket. They know some of their members are determined to register a protest vote on the MEP ballot paper and will hear efforts to sell them Cameron’s EU policy as a provocation. So instead the message is: “by all means have your fun with Ukip in the euro election, as long as you stick with the Tories for the council poll.”

For the Lib Dems, there is another problem unrelated to Europe. The council seats up for grabs are the ones that were last filled in 2010, on the same day as the general election. That was a high tide of support for Clegg’s party. They are also largely metropolitan seats, including London boroughs, where the Lib Dem vote will have come disproportionately from those of the party’s supporters who once fancied it as a leftwing antidote to New Labour. They have abandoned Clegg in droves.

In other words, the council elections on 22nd May could represent a quite forensic probing of Lib Dem electoral weakness; a punch on the party’s most tender bruises. One senior figure in the party recently told me he could not imagine a worse combination than European elections on the same day as a contest to defend the 2010 council gains a year before the next general election. One reason for advertising a pro-EU position so vigorously in the campaign is that it at least provides a principled cover for the massacre. That is, Clegg can tell his demoralised troops that they took a beating for something in which they genuinely believe – which feels marginally better than being beaten up as David Cameron’s hapless lackeys.

Judging by recent precedent, yet more of Clegg’s councillors will be culled and, after some low-level grumbling, his party will carry on stoically towards the general election, like soldiers in the First World War marching stoically out of their trenches towards enemy machine guns. There is in the Lib Dem ranks now a kind of martyr’s pride at this capacity for rolling self-sacrifice in the name of coalition. As one Cleggite MP puts it: “It’s magnificent and ghastly at the same time.”