Lord Ashcroft at the Conservative conference in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Lord Ashcroft marginals poll shows Labour would win "comfortable majority"

Survey of 26,000 voters suggests Tories would lose 83 MPs with swing of 6.5 per cent to Labour.
 

After yesterday's mixed local election results, which suggested that Labour would merely become the single largest party if they were replicated nationally (not a good position for an opposition to be in a year before a general election), Lord Ashcroft's super poll of marginal seats has raised spirits in the party. The survey of 26,000 voters in 26 Conservative-Labour battlegrounds found a swing of 6.5 per cent to Labour - "enough to topple 83 Tory MPs and give Ed Miliband a comfortable majority".

It's important to remember that this is a snapshot, not a prediction. In October 2009, a similar poll suggested the Tories would win a majority of 70. Just seven months later, they didn't win one at all. But thanks to the defection of Lib Dem voters to Labour and the defection of Tory voters to Ukip, Ed Miliband is in a strong position to become prime minister. The swing achieved by Labour in the marginals (6.5 per cent) is greater than the national average (5.5 per cent), supporting Labour's boast that it is "winning voters where it matters" (as it did in 2010 when it won a 1992 share of seats on a 1983 share of the vote).

Less happily for the party, the poll also found that just three in ten voters would rather see Miliband as prime minister than Cameron, and that nearly seven in ten trust Cameron and Osborne most to run the economy. History suggests that a significant number of this group will return to the Conservative fold once faced with the task of electing a national government, rather than expressing a fleeting opinion. But as I've argued before, the rise of Ukip and the collapse of the Lib Dems means the past may be a less useful guide to the next general election than any other.

Based on Ashcroft's findings, the Tories should abandon any lingering hope they have of winning a majority and recognise the struggle they will face merely to remain the largest party.

Here's how Douglas Alexander, Labour's general election strategy chair, has responded: "Lord Ashcroft's poll confirms that we are making real progress in seats where we need to do well and that Labour can win next year's General Election. In the year ahead we will continue to show how we can make a difference to people's lives and engage directly with voters conversation by conversation, doorstep by doorstep.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.