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Why The Bar In The Eastleigh By-Election Is Higher For Cameron Than Clegg

Last Updated: Friday, February 8th, 2013

Since the 2010 election, the Liberal Democrats, a party with no experience of government, have been a remarkably disciplined force.  Nick Clegg has been vilified in general for going into coalition with the Conservatives, and in particular for breaking his pledge on tuition fees.  The party’s poll ratings have more than halved.  It has lost a mass of council seats.  But the LibDems haven’t split.  No MP has defected to Labour.  No senior council leader has called on Clegg to go.  Each annual conference has been a communications triumph, projecting a clear message – that the LibDems are delivering fairness and, by being in government, are protecting voters from Conservative unfairness.  Perhaps the experience of being a party of opposition for so long, with the low expectations which come with it, explain the LibDems’ cohesiveness and grittiness.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, are a palpably unhappy ship.  Tim Montgomerie and I have set out the reasons on this site many times.  There is a lack of focus and consistency in Downing Street.  Governing at a time of austerity isn’t easy.  A gulf has opened up between the party’s backbenchers, who are often reliant on their frozen pay and curtailed expenses, and what many of them see as a gilded leadership of trustafarians.  Many Ministers sacked in the last reshuffle are still bitter. The party’s 25 year-long struggle over Europe has sapped the party’s self-confidence, and has helped to create a culture of dissent.  The boundary review has collapsed, and with it the likelihood of a majority in 2015.   Above all, the party has not now won a general election for over 20 years.  This has profoundly shaken the self-confidence of a party still stamped with a sense of entitlement.

I set all this background out at length to explain why the hurdle for the LibDems at the coming Eastleigh by-election is lower than for the Conservatives.

Unless the Liberal Democrat vote collapses completely, I would expect Nick Clegg and his colleagues to carry on bloodied but unbowed.  This isn’t to say that the Deputy Prime Minister won’t stand down as his party’s leader before the next election; merely that a loss in Eastleigh will not in itself propel him out of the door.  The first major poll of the campaign, published by Lord Ashcroft this morning, shows no sign whatsoever of a LibDem collapse: they are only 3% behind the Conservatives.  Indeed, LibDem sources are arguing that it matters should improve for them from now on, both because they will have a candidate in place by Sunday, and more especially because the “Huhne effect” can reasonably be expected to have peaked this week with his sensational confession and resignation.

In other words, the Liberal Democrats can be expected to bear a close defeat with reasonable fortitude.  I am not so sure that this is true of the Tories, given the febrile state that characterises them – worsened this week by the same-sex marriage row.  It be argued that the EU budget deal agreed today will help his position.  But that was exactly what was said about his recent EU referendum pledge, the benign effects for the Conservatives of which quickly faded.  Even if the Liberal Democrats pip Maria Hutchings, the Conservative candidate, by the narrowest of margins at the post, Tory backbenchers will still ask: if Cameron can’t win in Eastleigh, against a party whose poll ratings have collapsed, how can he win anywhere in 2015?  A possible route to victory – holding his own against Labour, and snatching 30 seats or so from the LibDems, will seem to have closed.

The Conservatives will clearly fight a local campaign, pitching Ms Hutchings, who fought the seat last time, as a committed local champion who will deliver for the people of Eastleigh after they have been failed by their MP.

The Liberal Democrats no longer have the option of fighting a local campaign to the same degree as in their opposition days.  They will have to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives as a party of government.

It is clearly in Labour’s strategic interests for Cameron to be damaged, since he is enemy number one.  The logical end of this aim would be a LibDem victory.  The party therefore needs to fight as inactive a campaign as possible.

UKIP, too, will have Cameron in its sights.  But it will not be able to control where its votes come from.  And since UKIP is a protest party, it is bound to attract the support of some who previously backed the LibDems.

The LibDem differentiation exercise in Eastleigh, and the hatred of Tory backbenchers for their Coalition partners, will make it difficult for the ordinary business of government to continue.  So until the end of February, expect more stories of LibDem Ministers blocking the initiatives of their Conservative colleagues; unseemly quarrels in Eastleigh over who “owns” which bits of government policy; sniping by Coalition MPs at each other in the chamber – and a rocky period for Coalition unity.  I don’t expect a bad result for the Tories to trigger a leadership challenge.  Indeed, they may even win (though a lot will depend on which party’s supporters turn out).  But given the present febrile atmosphere among the Conservatives, a bad result would be destabilising for Cameron.  It is inter-action of such a result with “events, dear boy, events”  – as Harold Macmillan once put it – that should keep the Tory whips awake at night.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Lord Ashcroft: Conservatives 3% ahead of Lib Dems in first Eastleigh by-election poll
“If voters see the campaign in terms of national issues, then, the Conservatives are in a very strong position. But as always, the Liberal Democrats will focus on the local. This is where the danger lies. Two thirds of Eastleigh voters – including a majority of Tories and 97% of Lib Dems – agree that “the Lib Dems do a good job locally in my area”. It is notable that despite the Conservative lead in voting intention, half the constituency’s voters expect the Lib Dems to win the by-election; indeed, Conservatives are more likely to expect this than a Tory victory.” Read more: http://is.gd/HhNAUl

Tim Montgomerie: There is a lot of illiberalism amongst so-called liberals and a lot of intolerance from those who once preached tolerance
“It is a great shame that the Coalition has not done enough to address the fear of religious people that they’ll soon live in a country where more traditionalist views might be banished from the public square. There is a lot of illiberalism amongst so-called liberals and a lot of intolerance from those who once preached tolerance. While it’s true that Maria Miller and other ministers have done much to address concerns about the narrow implications for religious liberty of the equal marriage bill there has not been a bolder, broader recognition that a whole series of equality laws and cultural changes are causing religious people and communities anxiety. Read more: http://is.gd/8wHTYJ

Julia Manning: Notes on a scandal – how the Staffordshire public rose up to seek for justice
“We have a centralised NHS in which fear and figures reign. Such is the size of the NHS, the central control and grip have got ever tighter as the demands have increased and staff lose sight of who they are serving. Transparency alone will only deliver manipulation. Accountability to communities and flexibility to respond to local need is a necessary precursor to changing attitudes.  The government also need to lead on honesty on what is affordable in the NHS and what can be expected. Professionals need to see patients as equals – intimidation and arrogance is intolerable – and they should welcome volunteers onto wards and into supporting advocacy roles for patients.” http://is.gd/vNM1Ew

Greg Clark: Lessons for modern government from Victorian visionaries
“The Treasury’s cost-benefit analysis methodology provides a stern test for proposed investments, which is exactly as it should be when taxpayers’ money is at risk And yet, John Kay makes a powerful point. A rigorous cost-benefit analysis is necessary part of the case for investment, but not the only one. As important as the numbers are, there are other, more fundamental, arguments. The Victorians, for instance, had to decide whether they wanted an open sewer to flow through the heart of London, or whether they wanted to bequeath something altogether better to future generations.” Read more: http://is.gd/3nD1Cl

Paul Goodman: The same-sex marriage bill – and why I’m cutting the money I give to the Party“It is impossible to know whether he will scrape a majority of Tory MPs for the bill this evening.  But for what it’s worth, my advice to them – if quizzed by Downing Street about their intentions – is to reply: “You want this bill? Scrap the Equalities Act, quit the ECHR – and I’ll look it again, thank you.” However, the Equalities Act is here to stay and, since this is so, a Conservative-led Government should not be taking such risks with religious freedom.  A protest is in order.  I am cutting the money I give to the party this year.  A pathetic gesture, no doubt.  I hope and believe it will be a one-off but, like other party members taking the same course, I cannot be sure.” Read more: http://is.gd/HbzlUG

Andrea Leadsom:  It is not “anti-European” to seek repatriation of powers
“It is not anti-EU to talk of repatriation, of powers flowing back to Member States.  The UK is not the only member State considering whether competencies should be repatriated.  As the Foreign Secretary said in the same debate last week “It is our responsibility, as one of the leading members of the EU, to press for the reforms that must happen if the EU is to succeed in this century.” The Prime Minister outlined the principles that he wants to guide that reform, and one of them is to repatriate powers. Let us end this misleading discussion, and focus instead on the real substance: Which powers are best executed at the European level, and which at Member State level. Subsidiarity is a key principle of the EU, and we need to apply it.” Read more: http://is.gd/gzW6G4

Peter Smith: The next step in equality – Protecting the freedom to differ
English law historically liked nice fudges where someone like Ladele could quietly go about her way as a civil marriage registrar, and a truly liberal state would seek to tolerate the views of sizeable minority – even, it may be said, a slim majority – of Britons who, for well-founded reasons, are opposed to the legal creation of same-sex marriages. The Leigh Bill has passed its preliminary stage by 86 votes to 31. Perhaps, in a few years’ time, it will be considered an important step in the move towards a state that tolerates and meaningfully respects sincere Christian views in the public square. Read more: http://is.gd/uEG5yI

By Paul Goodman

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