Danny Alexander speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference last year in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Exclusive: Danny Alexander: Lib Dems could be biggest party by 2025

What the Lib Dem minister told a recent parliamentary party away day.

From the oustside, it might appear as if the Lib Dems have few reasons for optimism. Since entering government, the party has lost a third of its members, 1,500 of its councillors, all but one of its MEPs, nine by-election deposits (most recently in Newark) and as much as two-thirds of its previous opinion poll support. The Tories, by contrast, have retained almost all of their 2010 vote share and have consistently exceeded expectations in local elections. As Angela Merkel told David Cameron when he asked her what was it like to lead a coalition government shortly before the 2010 general election: "The little party always gets smashed!"

But with both the Tories and Labour doubtful of winning a majority in 2015 (see Marcus Roberts's piece in tomorrow's NS for more on this), the Lib Dems console themselves with the thought that they will once again act as kingmakers in a "balanced parliament". Some are even more sanguine. In my politics column tomorrow, I reveal that Danny Alexander told a recent parliamentary party away day in Wyboston, Bedfordshire, that the Lib Dems could be the largest party in British politics by 2025. "We were all rolling our eyes, even Clegg's spads," one of those present told me. "He'd really been drinking the Kool-Aid". David Steel's 1981 exhortation to Liberal activists to "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government" looks modest by comparison.

But while Alexander's ambitions might seem unrealistic for a party that could struggle to win more votes than Ukip in 2015 (and we await his ten-year plan with interest), what can the Lib Dems do to avoid being continually "smashed"? That's the question I try to answer in my column.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The SNP thinks it knows how to kill hard Brexit

The Supreme Court ruled MPs must have a say in triggering Article 50. But the opposition must unite to succeed. 

For a few minutes on Tuesday morning, the crowd in the Supreme Court listened as the verdict was read out. Parliament must have the right to authorise the triggering of Article 50. The devolved nations would not get a veto. 

There was a moment of silence. And then the opponents of hard Brexit hit the phones. 

For the Scottish government, the pro-Remain members of the Welsh Assembly and Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, the victory was bittersweet. 

The ruling prompted Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to ask: “Is it better that we take our future into our own hands?”

Ever the pragmatist, though, Sturgeon has simultaneously released her Westminster attack dogs. 

Within minutes of the ruling, the SNP had vowed to put forward 50 amendments (see what they did there) to UK government legislation before Article 50 is enacted. 

This includes the demand for a Brexit white paper – shared by MPs from all parties – to a clause designed to prevent the UK reverting to World Trade Organisation rules if a deal is not agreed. 

But with Labour planning to approve the triggering of Article 50, can the SNP cause havoc with the government’s plans, or will it simply be a chorus of disapproval in the rest of Parliament’s ear?

The SNP can expect some support. Individual SNP MPs have already successfully worked with Labour MPs on issues such as benefit cuts. Pro-Remain Labour backbenchers opposed to Article 50 will not rule out “holding hands with the devil to cross the bridge”, as one insider put it. The sole Green MP, Caroline Lucas, will consider backing SNP amendments she agrees with as well as tabling her own. 

But meanwhile, other opposition parties are seeking their own amendments. Jeremy Corbyn said Labour will seek amendments to stop the Conservatives turning the UK “into a bargain basement tax haven” and is demanding tariff-free access to the EU. 

Separately, the Liberal Democrats are seeking three main amendments – single market membership, rights for EU nationals and a referendum on the deal, which is a “red line”.

Meanwhile, pro-Remain Tory backbenchers are watching their leadership closely to decide how far to stray from the party line. 

But if the Article 50 ruling has woken Parliament up, the initial reaction has been chaotic rather than collaborative. Despite the Lib Dems’ position as the most UK-wide anti-Brexit voice, neither the SNP nor Labour managed to co-ordinate with them. 

Indeed, the Lib Dems look set to vote against Labour’s tariff-free amendment on the grounds it is not good enough, while expecting Labour to vote against their demand of membership of the single market. 

The question for all opposition parties is whether they can find enough amendments to agree on to force the government onto the defensive. Otherwise, this defeat for the government is hardly a defeat at all. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.