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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.