Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Plots, polling and pratfalls; the Lib Dems today

In fields, alongside houses, in windows and near stations, placards proclaiming ‘Liberal Democrats Winning Here’ were dotted, er, liberally, around the Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency of Tim Farron, where my family and I were recently holidaying.

I posted a photograph of one erected by a gate alongside a field – near Oxenholme station for the record:

And the tone of the reaction was somewhat mocking; replies included:

And it turned out the Liberal Democrats weren't 'winning here', there or anywhere in the European elections. They managed to hold on to one seat - just, Catherine Bearder in the South East - and their north west MEP, Chris Davies, lost his seat after polling just six per cent of the vote, behind the Greens, despite holding his position since 1999.

What the posters did, of course, was provide a clear demonstration of the tactics the junior coalition party was deploying in a desperate attempt to consolidate its position. Senior Lib Dem figures admitted to me they knew they were going to get a kicking at these elections but it was hoped that by concentrating on traditional strongholds -where they had MPs and MEPs - they might cling on to a handful of positions in Brussels.

Another aspect of the party's plan was represented by the debates with Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (Ukip). Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg deserves some credit for trying to put forward the pro-EU argument - an unpopular position, perhaps, but one held by more people than often appreciated - and in the first debate he did pretty well, despite whatever the results of an instant poll may have found.

But Mr Clegg was appalling in the second debate: argumentative; curt and trying to sound superior. Farage wasn't going to be ruffled and, consummate performer that he is, was able to bat Clegg away. Maybe that was the moment the Lib Dem's campaign fell apart, for, as we now know, these tactics failed to return what was hoped. 

Even with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to imagine any tactics would have resulted in a different outcome, especially, as now seems clear, the Lib Dem's second most senior figure, Vince Cable, has been on manoeuvres, with his lieutenants apparently testing the ground for a possible putsch.

Lord Matthew Oakeshott - long an irritating splinter for Nick Clegg - quit the party today after he realised he was facing disciplinary measures for polling he had done which indicated his friend Mr Cable would do better in the next General Election than Mr Clegg, if he was leader.

In his resignation statement, Lord Oakeshott warned that the Lib Dems were 'heading for disaster' with Nick Clegg at the helm, as the party had been left with 'no roots, no principles and no values'. More damagingly, Lord Oakeshott indicated that not only had he commissioned the polling, he had also shared the results with Vince Cable, for whom he has long been a highly vocal and visible cheerleader. In his statement he said:

'Several months ago a close colleague, concerned about voting intentions in Twickenham, asked me if I would arrange and pay for a poll to show us Vince's current position and how best to get him re-elected. I was happy to help, and Vince amended and approved the questionnaire, but at his request I excluded question on voting intentions with a change of leader.

'Although Vince has excellent ratings, both as a minister and a local MP, he was slightly behind the Conservatives in this poll, as the full details on the ICM website show.

'That poll worried me so much that I commissioned four more in different types of constituency all over the country and added back the change of leadership question. The results were in the Guardian yesterday and on the ICM website. Several weeks ago, I told Vince the results of those four polls too.'

The business secretary obviously denies being involved in the commissioning of the surveys - and would obviously reject accusations of a plot. He does, though, admit being told 'in general terms what the trends were'. The Business Secretary would have known the election results were likely to be catastrophic and these polls were carried out in April and May this year; the timing is most intriguing.

Clegg's position is not good: his critics are growing at local levels on a daily basis, though not sufficient in number to topple him; and, under his leadership, the Lib Dems do, indeed, seem to be 'heading for disaster', as Lord Oakeshott asserts. But, the revelation of this cackhanded scheming - to describe it as a plot would be too generous - has oddly secured his position until the election. Likely successors - Danny Alexander (though Oakeshott's polling suggests he will struggle to hang on to his seat) and Tim Farron - hardly want to succeed Clegg before the next General Election, knowing what a dismal outcome awaits the party. And Cable, who increasingly doesn't seem to be half as clever as he thinks he is (just think of this humiliating episode with two female Daily Telegraph reporters), may well have finally burned his bridges. Presumptuous plotters rarely prosper in politics.

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