Nick Clegg speaks during the launch of the Lib Dems' European election campaign at Colchester United's Weston Homes Community Stadium. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour's election broadcast shows it fears a Lib Dem revival

The party is determined to deny Clegg the chance to make a fresh appeal.

After yesterday's volley of attacks on the Lib Dems, Labour has continued the theme with its new party election broadcast, which depicts Nick Clegg as the "un-credible shrinking man". In the black and white film, the Lib Dem leader is shown diminishing in size as his Tory superiors overrule him and triple tuition fees, raise VAT  introduce the bedroom tax and cut taxes for millionaires.

Opinion on the broadcast's artistic merits is divided (it's not the best PEB I've seen, but far from the worst), but what about the politics? My former NS colleague Mehdi Hasan asks why Labour is bothering to attack a party that currently sits in fifth place in the European election polls. But a year away from the general election, the film is a signal that Labour recognises the importance of retaining the support of the electorally crucial group of Lib Dem defectors.

With around 25 per cent of 2010 Lib Dems currently supporting the opposition, it can't risk going soft on Clegg and handing them "permission" to return (as some already have). In addition to those seats that Labour can hope to win directly from the Lib Dems, strategists point out that in 86 of the party's 87 Tory targets, the Lib Dem vote share in 2010 was larger than the Conservative majority. In 37, it is more than twice as large. Even if Clegg's party partially recovers before 2015, Labour stands to make sweeping gains.

The Lib Dems' decision not to replace Clegg with a more left-wing figure such as Vince Cable or Tim Farron has limited the potential for the party to make a fresh appeal to the electorate. But with both coalition parties increasingly obsessed with differentation, Labour clearly recognises the potential for the Lib Dems to recover ground as May 2015 approaches. With two polls today putting them just a point ahead, they can't afford to allow Clegg the opportunity to do so.

A third of 2010 Lib Dems are undecided, with one in five considering UKIP. Which side they come down on will be crucial to determining whether Labour wins.

In his conference speech last year, Clegg memorably listed 16 "heartless" Conservative policies he had blocked. Labour's mission is to remind voters of those he has enabled (one party source ridiculed his claim to be "equidistant"). When you study the numbers, it's not hard to work out why.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.