Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. As Labour's iron man, Ed Balls could do the trick (Guardian)

The tough-as-titanium spending plan Ed Balls laid out could clinch an election, says Polly Toynbee. Can Ed Miliband provide matching vision?

2. George Osborne was the future once - now Michael Gove drives the Tories on (Daily Telegraph)

The Chancellor has been supplanted as the party’s most effective political playmaker, writes Benedict Brogan.

3. Talk of recovery in Greece is premature – and all about justifying austerity (Guardian)

Few think Athens could go a day outside the sovereign version of debtor's jail, writes Aditya Chakrabortty.

4. It’s not a register we need to keep politics honest. It’s a free press (Independent)

Despite what Nick Clegg thinks, a statutory regulator of lobbyists would not have prevented Patrick Mercer's own spectacular folly, writes John Rentoul.

5. Obama and Xi must halt a risky rivalry (Financial Times)

The real difficulty is over the Chinese desire to carve out a ‘sphere of influence’ in east Asia, writes Gideon Rachman.

6. Balls uses the ‘d-word’. But it’s just a first step (Times)

The shadow chancellor has acknowledged the deficit, writes Rachel Sylvester. Even so, economic credibility is still a long way off for Labour.

7. Hubris and nemesis, with a Turkish accent (Daily Telegraph)

Recep Erdogan’s style of politics lies at the heart of his problems at home and abroad, says Shashank Joshi. 

8. Politics catches up with age of austerity (Financial Times)

Britain may finally be able to have a strategic conversation about what government is for, says Janan Ganesh.

9. Case of Bradley Manning is not America's finest hour (Independent)

While Manning behaved recklessly, his treatment has been a disgrace, says an Independent editorial. 

10. Here's how Ukip would clean up Westminster's act on lobbying (Guardian)

The Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour have done little to end sleaze scandals, says Nigel Farage. They're all in hock to lobbyists.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.