David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The opportunity for Cameron to avoid the TV debates is growing

The more parties, broadcasters and papers pile in, the greater the danger of a non-agreement. 

If David Cameron was confident that he would win the TV debates, he would have already signed up for them. That he is not even willing to begin negotiations until October is evidence that he is reserving the option to avoid them. By the same measure, Ed Miliband would not be pushing for an agreement if he did not believe that he would emerge the victor. 

It is the fear that the debates would advantage one or more of his opponents that explains Cameron's hesistancy. Labour figures rightly regard them as an opportunity for Miliband to speak directly to the country, unmediated by a hostile press, and as a means of countering the Tories' financial advantage. Having performed credibly against Cameron at PMQs in his three-and-a-half years as leader of the opposition, they are confident that Miliband would surpass expectations. As the papers demonise him as the most dangerous man in Britain, voters may warm to the moderate figure who wants to freeze their energy bill and build more homes. It is Cameron, as both the Tories and Labour recognise, who has the most to lose. 

The latest attempt to inject momentum into the discussions is a joint proposal by the Guardian, the Telegraph and YouTube to host an online debate. The aim is to engage young viewers for whom the internet is the main source of news and who are alienated by traditional broadcasters. It is a worthy one. But by adding a new element to the negotiations (and encouraging others to make similar proposals) it increases the possibility that Cameron will find an excuse to avoid them altogether. A Miliband source told me: "This shows why we need the talks to begin now, with 3-3-3 as our starting point." 

Both Labour and the Lib Dems regard a repeat of the format used last time - three debates between three party leaders over three weeks - as their best hope of securing an agreement. Cameron's alternative proposal of a "2-3-5" format with a head-to-head debate between himself and Miliband (before the campaign proper begins), another with the addition of Nick Clegg, and another with the addition of Nigel Farage and the Greens' Natalie Bennett is regarded with suspicion as an attempt to muddy the waters. As Labour's Michael Dugher has pointed out: "It’s nonsensical for Cameron to say he wants to start the debates early, but the negotiations late." 

The more parties, broadcasters and papers pile in, the greater the chance that Cameron will eventually announce with faux sincerity that "We tried really hard, we really did, but it just hasn't been possible to reach an agreement." 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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