Danny Alexander at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How Danny Alexander is manoeuvring to succeed Nick Clegg

The ambitious Lib Dem is positioning himself as the "continuity candidate" in a future leadership contest.

When Nick Clegg challenged Nigel Farage to a debate on EU membership, many Lib Dems were hopeful that his stand would revive their party's fortunes. But Clegg's drubbing at the hands of the UKIP leader last week has prompted a new bout of despondency. "It's reminded us of just how unpopular he is," one MP tells me. With no improvement in the party's European election poll ratings, leaving open the danger that it could lose all 11 of its MEPs next month, murmurs of a leadership challenge to Clegg have begun. At the weekend the Sunday Times reported that "Peers, MPs and party activists have delivered a stark message to Clegg that unless the party delivers respectable results, he will have to step aside."

While it's figures from the left of the party who are quoted in the piece (with one anonymous peer clearly identifiable as Lord Oakeshott), a Lib Dem source suggests an alternative origin for the story. "This is Danny's team jockeying," he tells me. 

In recent months, the leadership ambitions of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury have become increasingly obvious. He has strengthened his team with the appointment of Peter Carroll, the founder of the successful Fair Fuel campaign, as his special adviser, and Graeme Littlejohn as his head of office in Inverness, and, a source notes, "has been popping up in places like the Mirror and chatting much more to MPs". The man frequently mocked as "Beaker" has also ditched his glasses, lost some weight and seemingly dyed his hair. 

With Alexander set to replace Vince Cable as the Liberal Democrats' economics spokesman at the general election, representing the party in the chancellors' debate, he is positioning himself as the "continuity candidate" in a future leadership contest (assuming he retains his seat). "Ed Davey's just not up to it," one Lib Dem said. As for Alexander, I was told: "He looks like a faithful paladin of Clegg but he's ambitious". 

For now, however, Clegg's position looks secure. Ahead of next month's elections, the Lib Dem leader's team are carefully managing expectations. "They're preparing for a wipeout and trying to bring everyone into the tent," I'm told. Sources point to Clegg's "canny" appointment of his mentor Paddy Ashdown as general election campaign chair as one reason for his continued survival. "Every time there's a crisis, Paddy's on the news channel", one notes. Just as Peter Mandelson shored up Gordon Brown's position in times of trouble, so Ashdown serves as Clegg's political life support machine. 

With a much-diminished Vince Cable unprepared to wield the knife, the Lib Dem leader, against expectations, is almost certain to be in place on 7 May 2015. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Owen Smith promises to be a "cold-eyed revolutionary" - but tiptoes round Brexit

The Labour leader challenger takes Jeremy Corbyn on at his own anti-austerity game. 

Owen Smith may be challenging Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour leadership but it seems he has learnt a thing or two from his former boss. 

One year on from abstaining from the Tory Welfare Bill - a decision he now says he regrets - Smith attacked the former Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity policies from Orgreave, a former steel plant which was pivotal during the miners’ strike.  

Listing frustrations from library cuts to delayed trains, Smith declared: “Behind all of these frustrations is one cause – austerity.”

Borrowing the rhetoric that served Corbyn so well, he banged the drum about pay, labour rights and fair taxes. 

Indeed, a spokesman from Jeremy for Labour popped up to say as much: “We welcome Owen’s focus on equality of outcome, reindustrialisation and workers' rights - and his support for policies announced in recent months by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.”

On policy, though, Smith showed a touch of his own. 

His description of the Department for Work and Pensions as “a byword for cruelty and insecurity” resonates with the deep fear many benefit claimants feel for this faceless but all powerful authority. His promise to scrap it will not go unnoticed.

Another promise, to end the public sector pay freeze, is timely given widespread expectations that withdrawing from the EU’s single market will push up prices. 

He also appealed to the unions with a pledge to scrap the “vicious and vindictive” Trade Union Act. 

The policies may be Corbynite, but where Smith stands out is his determination to be specific and practical. He is selling himself as the Corbyn who actually gets things done. Asked about what he would replace zero-hours contracts with, he responded: "Well it could be one [hour]. But it can't be zero."

As he concluded his speech, he promised “revolution” but continued:

“Not some misty eyed romanticism about a revolution to overthrow capitalism.

“But a cold-eyed, practical, socialist revolution, through a radical Labour Government that puts in place the laws and the levers that can genuinely even things up.”

Smith’s speech, though, steered clear of grappling with the big issues of Brexit. He stands in favour of a second referendum on the Brexit deal, which may appease Labour's inner city voters but could frustrate others who voted Leave.

On the free movement of people – widely viewed as a dividing line between Labour’s Corbynite members and the wider voting population - he has been vague. He has previously expressed support for the "progressive case against freedom of movement" and criticised Corbyn for failing to understand patriotism. But this is not the same as drawing up policy. Whether he can come up with strong views on immigration and still appeal to both voter bases will be his biggest challenge of all. 

Owen Smith's 20 policies

1.      A pledge to focus on equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity 
2.      Scrapping the DWP and replacing it with a Ministry for Labour and a Department for Social Security
3.      Introducing modern wages councils for hotel, shop and care workers to strengthen terms and conditions
4.      Banning zero hour contracts
5.      Ending the public sector pay freeze
6.      Extending the right to information and consultation to cover all workplaces with more than 50 employees
7.      Ensuring workers’ representation on remuneration committees
8.      Repealing the Trade Union Act
9.      Increase spending on the NHS by 4 per cent in real-terms in every year of the next parliament
10.  Commit to bringing NHS funding up to the European average within the first term of a Labour Government
11.  Greater spending on schools and libraries
12.  Re-instate the 50p top rate of income tax
13.  Reverse the reductions in Corporation Tax due to take place over the next four years
14.  Reverse cuts to Inheritance Tax announced in the Summer Budget
15.  Reverse cuts to Capital Gains Tax announced in the Summer Budget
16.  Introduce a new wealth Tax on the top 1 per cent earners
17.  A British New Deal unveiling £200bn of investment over five years
18.  A commitment to invest tens of billions in the North of England, and to bring forward High Speed 3
19.  A pledge to build 300,000 homes in every year of the next parliament – 1.5 million over five years
20.  Ending the scandal of fuel poverty by investing in efficient energy