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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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.