The Collected Stephen Tall’s

‘The Underdog’ columns
for Total Politics magazine
October 2013 - December 2014

October 2013:
The Lib Dems are still suffering the
hangover-from-hell that we woke up
to on the morning of 7 May 2010
by Stephen Tall on August 30, 2013

Lib Dem conferences used to be nice and simple. A
couple of thousand freakishly zealous activists would
schlep off to the seaside, engage in five days’ earnest debates ignored by the media barring speculation about that year’s leadership crisis, and agree a
load of policy that made us feel good but which
stood absolutely no chance of troubling the statute
books. We’d then return home, probably a bit too
piously pleased with ourselves, ready to burn some
shoe leather pushing more Focus leaflets through
letterboxes to convert the good folk of Localsville to
our cause.
Then we did something that no political party with
ambitions to growing its popularity should ever do.
We entered government. Life is no longer so nice
and simple as it was in opposition. (Nigel Farage
take note.) Even worse, we entered into a coalition
government. With the Tories. It’s one thing to take
responsibility for your own mistakes (*cough* tuition
fees), quite another to have to take responsibility for
theirs as well (*cough* bedroom tax).

Coalition even as hundreds of our councillors are
scythed at successive local elections through no
fault of their own. Yet Clegg and his team feel they
get scant credit from activists for constantly battling
to thwart Tory efforts to sneak through illiberal measures on civil liberties and immigration within a Coalition in which they’re out-numbered 5-to-1.
In truth, both the leadership and activists are coming
to terms with having less power in government than
they would like. That feeling of impotence is turning
into a destructive passive-aggressiveness against
each other. It’s been on simmer for months, but
we’re likely to see it bubbling over when the party
meets in Glasgow this month. The big debate will
focus on the economy, an issue the leadership craftily dodged discussing when the Lib Dem conference
last met in March when a triple dip recession appeared possible. But this time, with even the double
dip erased from the history books and the British
economy picking up pace, the leadership – afforced
by the perennially popular Vince Cable – will be confident of victory for a motion which is broadly supportive of the Government’s record. At least I assume
they must be because Nick Clegg’s been lined up as
the concluding speaker.

That doesn’t mean the leadership will emerge unscathed. Lib Dem members are, after all, a feistily
independent bunch: they will inflict at least one
My party’s still suffering the hangover-from-hell that bloody nose on Nick, partly on the principle of the
issue (whichever one it is) and partly to show they
we woke up to on the morning of 7 May 2010. Until
can. There are plenty of potential flare-ups. For exthen we had been able to maintain a pretence, at
ample, there’s a proposal to drop the party’s opposileast for our own benefit, that we would form a mation to tuition fees (yes, in spite of everything, the Lib
jority government and introduce our manifesto
Dems are still officially against them, though I don’t
wholesale. And if that didn’t happen in one bound
know anyone who thinks we can seriously put that to
we’d wangle it so that electoral reform guaranteed
voters again). Or there’s the cautious welcome
us our fair share of MPs the election after. The dousoffered
to well-regulated fracking. Emergency moing of Cleggmania followed by the crushing AV refertions
the detention of David Miranda or British
endum defeat was a double whammy. Our bright
in Syria, for instance, could also throw a
hope of changing the face of British politics has
given way to the grim reality that 2015 will be what
party president Tim Farron has termed a “survival
The most likely defeat, however, will be on Danny
Alexander’s half-hearted proposal to oppose both
It’s all much easier for the Tories. Sure, they’ve had like-for-like Trident replacement and nuclear disarto compromise in government: “poor old David Cam- mament and instead triangulate a middle-way of
“taking a couple of steps down the ‘nuclear ladder’ of
eron is governing with one hand tied behind his
capabilities” (as the party has excruciatingly exback,” laments Peter Bone, the comedy caricature
Tory MP. But they can credibly pitch to the voters at plained it). Desperate to find a compromise that will
please everyone, we have put forward a policy that
the next election what an unshackled Tory government would do. The Lib Dems, though, face the un- pleases almost no-one. But the plain fact is that,
unless and until we can persuade either Labour or
appetising prospect of an election campaign domithe Tories to adopt our approach, whatever confernated by journalists asking of each of our pledges,
“But do you actually mean this one? Is it a red line or ence decides won’t matter a jot. In fact, it’ll be just
like the old days.
is it up for grabs?”
As the interminable hangover lingers, Lib Dems are
getting more grumpy with each other. Nick Clegg
accuses activists of “hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition” – a pretty ungracious response to a party which has stuck by him and the

Available online at:

November 2013:
The Lib Dem reshuffle was male,
pale and stale – and likely to remain
by Stephen Tall on October 13, 2013
It’s easy to see why party leaders don’t like reshuffles. What seems like the moment of ultimate power,
when you hold in the palm of your hand the destinies
of your colleagues, more often triggers a chain reaction of unintended consequences. When Nick Clegg
elbowed aside Scottish secretary Michael Moore,
whose self-effacing, sweet reason out-smarted Alex
Salmond in the Edinburgh Agreement negotiations, it
was because he reckoned his replacement, the genially feisty Alistair Carmichael, would be a better
match for the SNP leader in next year’s independence campaign.
It wasn’t just Mr Moore’s feathers which were ruffled
by his ruthless despatch; so too were those of Sir
Menzies Campbell, who looked on the now exScottish secretary as his protégé. It’s probably not a
coincidence that Sir Ming, whose formidable wife
Elspeth had given strong hints he’d re-stand for a
sixth term in Fife North East in 2015, decided that
same week to announce his retirement. His 9,048
majority may look healthy on paper, but it means the
Scottish party’s meagre resources will now have to
be stretched even thinner to defend a seat which
would otherwise have been thought rock solid.
Another incident is perhaps more revealing of how
the best laid schemes ‘gang aft agley’. Last year,
Nick Harvey was briskly dismissed as armed forces
minister by the Deputy Prime Minister, who guiltily
gave him a knighthood to make up for it. This year,
Sir Nick Harvey was offered re-entry into government with the post of Lib Dem chief whip, vacant
thanks to Alistair Carmichael’s elevation. But, instead of being grateful, Sir Nick turned plain old Mr
Clegg down. The Lib Dem leader was forced instead
to promote old-hand Don Foster (who famously vanquished Chris Patten in Bath in 1992 to the sound of
cheers from jubilant Lib Dems and right-wing Tories
alike). It’s hard to square this same-old-names merry
-go-round with Mr Clegg’s declared aim of “provid
[ing] the opportunity for as many in our ranks as possible to contribute their skills to Ministerial office”.
That choice quote is from his exchange of letters
with another of the evictees, home office minister
Jeremy Browne. Regarded as a Coalition loyalist
and the party’s Über-Orange Booker, his was the
surprise exit of the reshuffle. I asked one Cleggite
why he’d been booted out: “He was given the
chance to put a liberal imprint on the Home Office.
Ask yourself if he took that opportunity,” came the
pointed reply. Well, quite. The issue which has
caused Mr Clegg most grief in the past year has
been civil liberties. Whether it was the ‘snooper’s
charter’, the extension of ‘secret courts’, the “go

home” illegal immigrant vans, or the arrest of David
Miranda, the perception has taken root in the party
that Lib Dem ministers have too often caved-in to
Theresa May’s authoritarian demands.
In a recent survey of party members by LibDemVoice, Mr Browne recorded the worst net popularity
rating (-18%) of any Lib Dem minister since the Coalition was formed. Mr Clegg’s verdict seems scarcely
to have been any warmer. His decision to substitute
the thrusting Mr Browne with the rough-hewn Norman Baker was calculated, and a little bit brilliant. It
has, of course, upset ultra-Blairite pundits like John
Rentoul and David Aaronovitch who regard as dotty
Mr Baker’s investigations into the death of Dr David
Kelly. But it means the Lib Dems now have in the
Home Office a minister who is a libertarian by instinct, licensed by his leader to speak out the next
time Mrs May or her officials decide to make a unilateral grab for increased security powers. In case you
were wondering, Mr Baker’s net popularity rating
among Lib Dem members was +37%. If he does the
job as Nick Clegg hopes he will, it’ll soon be higher.
Have you noticed what all the names mentioned
above have in common? Yes, they’re all men.
(They’re also all white and, let’s be kind, at least
middle-aged.) Nick Clegg promoted only one woman
to become a minister, Susan Kramer at Transport,
and she was drafted in from the House of Lords. It’s
shaming that the party which proudly proclaims its
belief in equality has never yet appointed a female
cabinet minister. Perhaps this omission will be rectified should Jo Swinson, about to go on maternity
leave, be made Scottish secretary if (when?) next
year’s referendum delivers a ‘No’. But by then there
will be just a few months of the parliament left, and it
would be little more than a face-saving exercise.
The key problem is the lack of women Lib Dem MPs:
just seven out of the 57 elected in 2010. Worryingly,
only two of these – Jenny Willott and Lynne Featherstone – have anything like healthy majorities, and
even they will face tough battles defending their
2005 gains from Labour. It’s true, women have been
selected to defend two of the party’s strongholds
(Hazell Grove and Berwick), as well as in two top
targets narrowly lost to the Tories at the last election
(Montgomeryshire and Oxford West and Abingdon).
But we’ve been here before. At the last election, the
Lib Dems selected almost as many women (25) in
their top 100 seats as did Labour (27), but were a lot
less successful in getting them elected. And who
thinks 2015 is going to be any easier for the party?
The sad reality is that Nick Clegg’s future reshuffles,
whether in government or out, are likely to be just as
male, pale and stale as this one.
Available online at:

December 2013:
Be careful what you wish for. Lib
Dems weren’t in 2010. Will we be in

The second remarkable thing is this: that those
42,000 Lib Dem members who remain have stood
firm behind remaining within the Coalition and trying
to make it work. Close to 80% continue to support it,
according to our latest LibDemVoice survey. Even
by Stephen Tall on November 11, 2013
the Social Liberal Forum – an influential activist
Be careful what you wish for. That’s what commen- group set up to challenge what they regard as the
leadership’s economically liberal ‘Orange Book’
tators warned the Lib Dems every time the polls
agenda, and which views the Coalition with deep
teased us that a hung parliament might come to
suspicion – has stopped short of calling for the party
pass, that we could end up holding the balance of
power. It’s not the most helpful advice, to be honest. to withdraw from it.
After all, what was our choice in 2010? Turn down a
once-in-a-century opportunity to give government a Here’s the third remarkable thing – in spite of everygo and confirm the verdict of the sceptics that we are thing the party has endured within the Coalition,
three-quarters of party members want the party to
indeed a wasted vote? No chance. No choice. We
continue playing an active part in government after
had to do it. “The British people are the kingmakers,” acknowledged Nick Clegg. “The bastards,” 2015. You might expect MPs still to be enamoured
by the novelty of ministerial office (either its continuhe didn’t add but could have.
ing reality or future prospect). But that the poor,
bloodied infantry is still prepared to go over-the-top
The Coalition has not been kind to the Lib Dems.
in the hope of advancing the liberal frontier a few
Our leader is pilloried and our poll ratings have
halved. One-third of the party membership has gone more yards is pretty admirable/foolhardy* (*delete
Missing In Action. We have fewer councillors than at according to taste).
any time since 1984 (and at least then numbers
There is a paradox, though. By a 2:1 majority, more
were on the up).
Lib Dem members would prefer Labour as our partIn the circumstances, we might be forgiven for turn- ners to the Conservatives next time. Yet among the
ing round to the voters and saying: “You know what, party’s 57 held seats, the Conservatives are in secguys, next time you can’t make up your minds don’t ond place in 38. This means the post-2015 Lib Dem
look to us to break the deadlock. You can just enjoy parliamentary party is likely to be dominated by MPs
in Tory-facing seats (usually with Labour in a distant
Conservative/Labour minority rule instead. That’s
third). True, any deal with Labour might allow us to
right. See how you like the government being consqueeze their vote further in those areas. But the
stantly held to ransom by Peter Bone and Nadine
Dorries or by Len McClusky’s hand-picked squad of bigger risk will be Tory-turned-Lib Dem voters returning to the fold to get rid of Labour. So if, as exUnite-sponsored MPs. We tried this ‘compromising
pected, we lose a chunk of our current seats to Lafor the sake of the national interest’ thing and all it
bour in 2015 as a result of the Coalition with the
brought us was a load of grief. So we’re going to
Conservatives it’s at least as plausible that we’ll then
wash our hands of it.”
lose a chunk of those seats that remain to the Tories
in 2020 if we go into coalition with Labour. Talk
Yet that isn’t the mood of Lib Dems. At all. Three
things strike me as pretty remarkable features of the about a double whammy.
Lib Dems in Coalition.
The party that’s become famous for the success of
First, the unity of our MPs. Not that they’re united in its ‘squeeze message’ – “Only the Lib Dems can
beat the Conservatives/Labour* here!” (* delete acsupporting the Coalition’s policies. Far from it. In
cording to seat) – could well become the victim of
fact, there isn’t a single Lib Dem MP who has been
on the backbenches throughout this parliament who the biggest squeeze since the party was all-but
eliminated in the 1950s. You know what? We’d bethasn’t rebelled at least once. But – and it’s a big
BUT – there has been no whisper of a revolt against ter be careful what we wish for.
Nick Clegg’s leadership. Nor has there been a defection to Labour (remember the silly season media Available online at:
my-total-politics-column-be-careful-what-you-wish-forchatter in 2010 that Charles Kennedy was about to
switch sides?), even among those Lib Dem MPs
most likely to lose their seats to them. When Sarah
Teather declared herself “desolate” at Lib Dem complicity in the Coalition’s immigration and welfare policies she didn’t make her point by jumping ship but
by walking the plank, saying she’d stand down as an
MP in 2015. Indeed, her most damning line was that
“my own party [is] just as afraid of public opinion as
the Labour party”.

January 2014:
How can the Lib Dems halt their
polling Groundhog Day?
by Stephen Tall on December 9, 2013

Here’s an easy question to start the new year – what
are the Lib Dems currently averaging in the opinion
polls? The answer’s 10 per cent, but the reason it’s
easy is because it’s exactly the same as the party
was polling in January 2011, January 2012 and
January 2013. Welcome to Lib Dem Groundhog
Day. Here’s a harder question – what can the party
do in 2014 that will halt this time-loop?

Europe will dominate in a way it hasn’t done before.
Ukip will toot its populist anti-EU, anti-immigration
tune while Tories in the south and Labour in the
north do their utmost to stop their voters dancing to
it. This offers the Lib Dems the chance to occupy a
distinctive niche in British politics as ‘The Party of In’.
The party’s internal polling shows this pro-European
message plays well to the 15 per cent of voters who
don’t currently support the Lib Dems but would consider doing so. (They also like Nick Clegg, by the
way.) If the party can woo even half this group of ‘Lib
Dem considerers’ – what Clegg’s strategy guru Ryan
Coetzee terms “our market” – between now and May
2015, its ratings would climb to 17-18%. That would
be good enough to save some 40 to 45 Lib Dem
seats and give the party real leverage in the event of
a second hung parliament.

Searching for some bullish optimism I called Tim
Farron, the party president known for his goodhumoured frankness. How did he rate Lib Dem
chances in 2014′s European and local elections, the
last polls before next year’s general election? He
This is the logic driving Nick Clegg’s declared intent
was realistic – which is a polite way of saying we can to stand “smack bang in the liberal centre” – more
expect another bum year.
responsible than Labour, more caring than the Tories. This kind of split-the-difference positioning is
The local elections will be fought in the tough terrain unloved by activists – who label it defensive and unof metropolitan councils, where the Lib Dems have
ambitious – yet it’s the only realistic option available
suffered serious collateral damage from the Coalito the Lib Dems. I call it an option, but it isn’t, not
tion. The party hopes its results have bottomed out, really. It was thrust on us by the voters when they
but could find itself ousted from areas such as Man- popped the ‘Cleggmania’ balloon in May 2010 and
chester in spite of formidable community campaign- then torpedoed electoral reform by rejecting AV a
ing by Withington MP John Leech.
year later.
And the picture isn’t a lot prettier when we look at
the Euro elections. As Farron pointed out to me, the
party has never done well when the British people
get to vote on Europe: “Even in 2009,” (when the
party was twice as popular as it is today) “we only
won in four of out of the 63 seats we then held at
Westminster in the Euros.”

The party now has to confront the truth that its only
route into government for the forseeable future is in
coalition with either of the two main parties. That inevitably means compromise, pegging the Lib Dems
as the party of moderate, fair-minded pragmatism.
Clegg’s embrace of the ‘liberal centre’ is a case of
making a virtue from necessity.

That MEPs are elected by proportional representation should offer some protection to the 12-strong Lib
Dem group. The party is keen, rightly, to highlight
that its fortunes are faring much better in our target
seats than in the country as a whole – as the successful defence in the Eastleigh by-election demonstrated. However, given the enormous size of the
UK’s European constituencies – South East England, for instance, stretches from Dover to Oxford
taking in nine counties – the party desperately needs
to get out its vote where it has MPs to make up for
the collapse of support elsewhere.

And he will use every opportunity possible in 2014 to
hammer this home. You want a government that will
tackle the deficit but not take an axe to public services? Then you need the Lib Dems to de-toxify the
Tories. You want a government that will stick up for
the underdog but not bankrupt the economy? Then
you need the Lib Dems to leaven Labour.

The doomsday scenario is this: the local elections
are dire, while Lib Dem MEPs are wiped clean off
the map with the party trailing in fifth place behind
the Greens. It’s not impossible. Nor is it impossible
that such an atrocious result would force Nick Clegg
to quit – though Lib Dems I’ve spoken to rate this
prospect as the less likely of those two outcomes.
In any case, there is an upside, one that Farron was
keen to stress. In 2014′s Euro elections the issue of

Will it be enough to save not only Nick Clegg’s skin
but the skins of the three dozen Lib Dem MPs at risk
if the party stays stuck at 10 per cent? In Groundhog
Day, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) re-lives the same
day again and again, and by learning from his mistakes and his experiences he becomes a better person. Eventually (*spoiler alert*) he gets his girl. Lib
Dems will hope to wake up in 2015 to a similarly
happy ending.
Available online at:

sceptic noises to fend off the challenge from Ukip,
‘The Party of Out’. Internal party polling indicates it
finds favour with the Lib Dem ‘market’ of target voters, the 25% of the public which would currently conby Stephen Tall on January 17, 2014
sider voting Lib Dem. And it certainly plays well with
the instinctively pro-European Lib Dem activists,
A spectre is haunting the Lib Dems — the spectre of whom Clegg desperately needs to enthuse to get out
wipeout. No, I’m not talking about the 2015 general and sell the party message on the doorstep, no matelection (though I’ll come to that), I’m talking about
ter what their concerns with the compromises of
this year’s two sets of elections, both set for 22 May, Coalition.
the locals and the Euros. Do you hear that sound?
No, me either: it’s the sound of silence, of Lib Dem
But how will those same activists react to this possispinners not talking up the party’s expectations.
ble ‘double whammy’ of bad election results? Will
Here’s why. Both are likely to be bad for the party.
they write them off as the price to be paid for being
in government; or might they turn their fire on the
The last time these local council seats in England’s party leader in the hope of avoiding a similar melttowns and cities were contested was on 6th May,
down in 2015? If you don’t want to know the result,
2010: ie, back when we were popular. In fact, the
look away now… Clegg will stay as Lib Dem leader.
results that day were pretty disappointing – we made That’s not to say there aren’t some Lib Dems who’d
a net loss of 132 councillors and lost control of four
love to see him stand down in favour of Vince Cable,
councils – though they were overshadowed by the
seen as the acceptable Lib Dem face of coalition
more crushing national disappointment of Cleggma- because he’s never looked for a moment like he acnia’s failed allure and the nervous excitement of en- tually enjoys working with the Tories. But they’re not
tering the first peacetime coalition government.
in the majority (and, crucially, they know they’re not).

February 2014:
A spectre is haunting the Lib Dems
— the spectre of wipeout

The party scored 26% in that election. Since then,
the Lib Dems have polled 15% (2011), 16% (2012)
and 14% (2013) when the public chooses who runs
their town halls. A repeat of that pattern this year will
result in the all-too-familiar defeat of hundreds of Lib
Dem councillors. Our total number of councillors –
the foot-soldiers essential in building our support for
the party’s MPs – could dip below 2,000 for the first
time since 1982. Ouch.

Clegg’s future has been safe since the Lib Dems
held on at the Eastleigh by-election – it showed MPs
and members that “where we work, we win” (a favourite slogan of Stakhanovite activists). Since then,
the party has got its head down, buckling down
where we have MPs and in our top targets – what
party president Tim Farron has billed the ’75-seat by
-election strategy’. As a result, the collapse in Lib
Dem membership – down by one-third since 2010 –
seems now to have bottomed out; indeed numbers
That might sound bad for the Lib Dems – but that’s
grew slightly in 2013. Nick Clegg has also sharponly because I haven’t yet told you the prognosis for ened his attacks on the Conservatives, accusing
the party in the European elections. Last time, in
them of being locked in a “deathly embrace” with
2009, the party won 14%, enough to get a decent 11 Ukip, and criticising their “remorseless” assault on
out of 72 MEPs elected. It’s not impossible – if, say, welfare payments to the most vulnerable.
the party’s vote is squeezed down to 6% – that this
time the Lib Dems could finish with not a single
Expect more of both throughout 2014: relentless
MEP: none, zero, zilch. Ouch again.
campaigning in the seats we need to win, and strident differentiation from the Conservatives to woo
Such a result would be especially painful for Nick
back progressive voters. It might well be enough to
Clegg. He is a European to his fingertips: a polyglot, save the party’s skin in 2015, and perhaps even semarried to a Spaniard, born to a Dutch mother. He
cure the Lib Dems another five years in government.
was inspired to enter politics (by Paddy Ashdown)
when working for the European Commission in
But such a strategy has dangers, too. First, that the
Strasbourg. His first election victory was as a Lib
Lib Dems end up pushed back into defending 50
Dem MEP in 1999. “The Liberal Democrats seemed heartland seats with few prospects for growth. And
so outward looking and forward looking, compared
secondly, that constant bickering with the Conservato the tired, old, introverted politics of Labour and the tives annoys the voters so much that the very idea of
Conservatives. For me, that was it. That’s how I
another coalition becomes toxic. Now that really
found our party,” he explained in his most recent
would be a meltdown.
conference speech.
Available online at:
my-total-politics-column-a-spectre-is-haunting-the-libA devout internationalist, Clegg is unabashedly
branding the Lib Dems as ‘The Party of In’. But the
principle is laced with calculation, too. It offers the
Lib Dems a distinctive niche, with both Conservatives and (to a lesser extent) Labour making Euro-

March 2014:
It’s War! The Lib Dems’ “enemy
within strategy” shows it’s no longer
peace in our time

the Tories. If this Lib Dem trinity are now agnostics,
does the Lib-Con Coalition even exist any more?

He cited recent interventions by Nick Clegg, who has
spoken of his frustration at the Tories’ refusal to look
“openly, imaginatively” at reforming the drugs laws;
by David Laws, who has declared his fury at Michael
Gove’s meddling in the supposedly independent
schools inspectorate, Ofsted; and by Danny Alexander, who declared that Tory plans to cut the higherrate of tax below 45p would happen only “over my
dead body”. What links all three – Clegg, Laws,
Alexander – is that they are the most devout of Coalition believers, and seemingly happiest working with

Available online at:

To the more excitable in the Westminster Village,
this newly intensified differentiation spells the end
(as, it should be noted, did every other previous
by Stephen Tall on February 16, 2014
eruption at the time). In reality, what Oakeshott
It’s War! Here’s how Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Nick terms the ‘enemy within strategy’ was always ineviClegg, broadcast the news to the nation: “This morn- table and has long been planned. Nick Clegg’s first
ing the Lib Dem Ambassador in London handed our strategy adviser, Richard Reeves, once drew a
Coalition partners in Government a final Note stating graph plotting ‘Government unity and strength’
against ‘Lib Dem identity’ as two lines, the former
that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that
going down and the latter rising up, between 2010
they were prepared at once to withdraw their rightwing agenda, a state of war would exist between us. and 2015. We are approaching the point when the
two lines are as far apart as it’s possible to get.
I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has
been received, and that consequently this party is at
But what is the ‘Lib Dem identity’ now? To right-wing
war with the Conservatives.”
journalist Fraser Nelson it’s obvious – Clegg is in red
-blooded pursuit, he wrote in the Daily Telegraph, of
I’m lying, of course. Nick Clegg is still, officially at
“the people he had given up on: the Left-wingers”,
any rate, holding on to the piece of paper he has
bearing both the Prime Minister’s name and his own, blaming Reeves’ successor, Ryan Coetzee, for this
alleged lurch. Nelson’s assumption is a fundamental
headed ‘The Coalition: our programme for governmisunderstanding of the current Lib Dem strategy,
ment’, which promised peace in our time. But this
as shaped by Coetzee, who has initiated the party’s
policy of appeasement, which has kept the phoney
first ever extensive private polling operation of what
peace fragilely intact since May 2010, is fracturing,
having served its useful purpose of postponing for a he terms the Lib Dem ‘market’ – the 25% of voters
few years the inevitable resumption of hostilities be- who say they are very likely to vote for the party
(10%), or who would at least consider doing so
tween two old enemies.
(15%), in 2015.
Okay, let’s not torture the war analogy any further.
These 15% of ‘persuadables’ are pretty evenly split
This much is clear. We are little more than a year
away from the general election campaign. It’s in both three ways, between people who are currently Conservative or Labour voters or who are undecided.
Coalition parties’ interests to shout their disagreeThey are the small-l-liberal voters who (for example)
ments a little louder. That is why David Cameron is
like the Lib Dems’ tax-cuts for the low-paid, who are
happy to tell The Spectator “that there’s a good list
themselves willing to pay for well-run public services,
of things I have put in my little black book that I
haven’t been able to do which will form the next Tory who are pragmatically pro-European, and who want
manifesto.” And it’s why Nick Clegg highlighted in his to see investment in renewables to protect the envilast conference speech 16 Tory policies he’s blocked ronment. In other words, moderate, progressive centrists, who worry that the Tories are too uncaring and
within government: “Sometimes compromise and
that Labour is too irresponsible.
agreement isn’t possible and you just have to say
The party’s slogan for 2015 – ‘Building a stronger
economy and a fairer society’ – is aimed squarely at
It’s what pundits term ‘differentiation’ and suddenly
‘persuadables’. If Clegg succeeds in his misit’s all the rage. Matthew Oakeshott, the pugnacious
convince a decent chunk of them to vote for
Lib Dem peer who acts as Vince Cable’s paramilitary
he will likely hold the balance of power
wing, is delighted at this new-found enthusiasm for
In which case another parliament of
public spats: “What I think is significant is that we’ve
time may yet beckon. Just don’t expect
seen a string of attacks – almost what I would call an
full five years.
enemy within strategy.”

April 2014:
Nick v Nigel – hope is now the
official Lib Dem electoral strategy

would consider voting Lib Dem – the party’s target
‘market’ – the pro-European pitch plays pretty well.

But the strategy isn’t just aimed at the voters: Nick
Clegg needs also to re-enthuse his party. After four
years of Coalition compromise – welfare cuts, tuition
“Listen, don’t mention Ukip! I mentioned them once, fees U-turn, NHS reforms, ‘secret courts’ – his
but I think I got away with it.” It’s not (quite) a line
troops are battered and bruised. The Lib Dems have
from Fawlty Towers, but has been the conventional shed one-third of their members and thousands of
wisdom of the three main party leaders for years.
councillors have been lost in battle. For a party that
is reliant on the foot-slog of Stakhanovite activists
David Cameron broke this omerta once, labelling
delivering leaflets and canvassing door-by-door to
Ukip’s supporters “fruitcakes, loonies and closet rac- get its message across, such attrition poses a major
ists”. That was back in 2006. Afterwards, the Tories, threat to its get-out-the-vote operation.
Labour and Lib Dems reverted to the agreed line:
stick your fingers in your ears and pretend Nigel
2015 has been labelled a ‘survival election’ for the
Farage doesn’t exist. “If you want Britain to leave the Lib Dems, and it is. But Clegg knows he needs to
EU then only a vote for Ukip will achieve that,” he’d offer his party more than simply avoiding being
bellow. “Did you hear someone say something?”
wiped out next time to ignite its energies. Farage is a
Cameron would ask. “Nothing,” replied Nick Clegg.
useful enemy. His anti-immigration isolationism
“Nor me,” echoed Ed Miliband.
genuinely offends the polyglot Clegg, married to a
Spaniard, whose mother is Dutch and grandmother
Until now, that is. Suddenly the Lib Dem leader has a Russian émigré. There is nothing feigned or
broken ranks. In February Clegg struck a d’Artagnan strained in his passionate denunciation of Ukip’s pa-like duelling pose, throwing down the gauntlet to his rochialism.
Ukip foe: “I will challenge Nigel Farage to a public
open debate about whether we should be in or out of On this, Clegg and his party are as one. His ‘I love
the European Union, because that is now the choice Britain’ conference speech – delighting in eccentric
facing this country and he is the leader of the party
British obsessions such as the shipping forecast,
of ‘Out’, I am the leader of the party of ‘In’.” Farage
queuing and cups of tea, interspersed with praise for
accepted 48 hours later, though his response lacked British traditions such as tolerance, human rights
its usual ebullience: “I have absolutely no choice.
and the rule of international law – earned him a
I’ve got to say yes.”
genuine standing ovation. This was a transformation
from the grudging ‘we’d better get to our feet beAt the Lib Dems’ spring conference in March, Farage cause the cameras are watching’ applause of recent
was everywhere. I turned to page 5 of the conferyears. Clegg’s party has fallen a little bit back in love
ence agenda: there, prominently staring at me, was with him. And it’s all thanks to Nigel Farage and
a picture of the Ukip leader. He was there in the
punchlines of party president Tim Farron’s rallying
pro-EU speech: “So Nigel, are we better off in or
That isn’t enough, of course. The European elecout?” And he was there on stage, when – in perhaps tions on 22nd May will still be tough-going for the Lib
the most misjudged conference appearance since
Dems, likely to lose half (and possibly all) their curSarah Teather tried her stand-up routine – Solihull
rent MEPs. That same day’s local elections – conMP Lorely Burt donned a Farage mask, and brantested for the first time since the pre-Coalition
dished a pint of beer and a cigarette. (Don’t worry, it heights of Cleggmania four years ago – will see anwas a fake cigarette: this was a Lib Dem conferother few hundred Lib Dem councillors defeated. It
all seems grimly familiar. But Lib Dems are a stoic
lot. This is a party, after all, which each year sings
“Why?” you might ask. What do the Lib Dems think
the self-deprecating shanty ‘Who’ll come-a-losing
they’ll gain from promoting Farage as the bogeyman deposits with me?‘ at its end of conference kneesof the European elections and themselves as his
“I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand,”
For a start, the Lib Dems aim to appeal to that seg- said another John Cleese creation in Clockwise. Yet
ment of the British population that shares their proit’s the hope that keeps Lib Dems going. “Hope verEuropeanism, a group spanning the progressive left, sus fear – it’s the oldest dividing line in politics,” armoderate right and internationalist liberals.
gues Nick Clegg. That’s right, it’s official: hope is
now the Lib Dem electoral strategy. Fingers crossed.
Happily enough, this principled stance is also smart
politics. In the Nick v. Nigel debates, far more people Available online at:
will be agreeing with Nick than at any time since May my-total-politics-column-nick-v-nigel-hope-is-now-the2010. And among the 25 per cent of the public who official-lib-dem-electoral-strategy/
by Stephen Tall on March 16, 2014

May 2014:
Might Clegg jump before 2015?
Here’s how it could work…
by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2014

It’s time to talk about Nick Clegg’s future. He’s now
in his seventh year as Lib Dem leader, and that anniversary’s famous itch is starting to chafe. Should he
stay or should he go now? This question – one previously asked only by the most fervent anti-Cleggites
– is beginning to be whispered by loyalists too.
The reasons for these jitters are not hard to pin
down. Clegg’s initiative of the ‘Nick v Nigel’ debates
was widely praised as a bold move, one that would
galvanise Lib Dem support and help define his party
as the rallying point for pro-Europeans ahead of the
22nd May elections.
Their first encounter buttressed this view. True,
Farage was named the winner in YouGov’s instapoll, but the reminder of the Clegg of 2010 – charming, persuasive, sensible – enabled him at least to
share the honours. Then the second debate struck.
This time there was no room for doubt: Farage was
the victor over Clegg, whose contrived attempts to
emote pro-European passion seemed mainly to
comprise a string of laboured jibes against the Ukip
The moment that crystallised Clegg’s defeat – and
which left even loyalists with their heads in their
hands – was his response to the question, “What will
the EU look like in 10 years’ time?” This was an
easy, short-pitched delivery begging to be hit for six
by a reforming, liberal leader batting for Britain. Yet
Clegg’s dispiritingly bland response was: “it will be
much the same as it is now”.

of another few hundred councillors across the country. Indeed, the total number of Lib Dem councillors
will very likely plummet below 2,000 for the first time
since 1983 – and at least then the SDP/Liberal Alliance was on its way up, not down.
How would the Lib Dems respond to this doomsday
scenario: battered in the Euros, bloodied in the locals? Officially Nick Clegg has vowed to stay on until
at least 2020: “I fully intend to continue being leader
up to, through and beyond the next election, and
through the next parliament.” He knows no other answer would satisfy the media. In reality, his fate
hinges on two decisions: that of his party this May,
and that of the voters a year later.
Clegg will probably be allowed by his party to hang
on until 2015. One of the remarkable features of this
parliament has been quite how loyal to their leader
Lib Dem MPs have been: few noises-off and no defections. Yes, Vince Cable remains (somewhat
aloofly) ready to wear the crown, though never, apparently, to wield the dagger. And yes, there have
been some signs of jockeying for position – Danny
Alexander in particular seems to be on manoeuvres
– but this is with a view to a post-2015 leadership
contest, not a direct challenge to Clegg’s authority.
None of Clegg’s colleagues appear willing to give
him the push.
Might Clegg jump? Might he bite on a cyanide pill for
the sake of Lib Dem survival? It’s not impossible.
Here’s how it could work… Clegg announces that he
will resign as party leader but continue as Deputy
Prime Minister:

“I have a duty, on behalf of my party and my country,
to see through the job that I signed up to,” he would
nobly say. “There is much we have achieved in the
last four years of which we can be proud. But it is
Still, Lib Dems took consolation from the fact that
clear that the Lib Dems need to be able to fight the
they had at least firmly established themselves as
next election as a proudly independent party. I rec‘The Party of IN’, their antidote-to-Ukip Euro election ognise this is best done under a new leader with a
slogan. Until, that is, the arrival of a poll from ICM – fresh mandate.”
traditionally the firm whose methodology is kindest to
the Lib Dems – which showed them tied with the
This statement would trigger a contest offering the
Greens on just 6 per cent, a result which would likely Lib Dems a valuable media spotlight right through to
see the party’s 11 MEPs wiped-out of the European the party conference in October, when Clegg’s sucParliament.
cessor (almost certainly current party president Tim
Farron) is unveiled.
The fear that this might be a foretaste of the general
election to come sent a shiver down the collective
A fantasy, maybe. But for those Lib Dem MPs lookLib Dem spine. Perhaps, more than a few sadly con- ing nervously at this May’s results it may seem a far
cluded, it’s not just Clegg’s pro-European message better alternative to the reality that otherwise awaits.
which is irrecoverably unpopular: it’s the messenger
Available online at:
my-total-politics-column-might-clegg-jump-before-2015And it’s not just the Euro elections that worry the Lib heres-how-it-could-work/#sthash.3RTtIp1N.dpuf
Dems – local elections are held the same day. It will
be the first post-Coalition test in London, home to
senior MPs like Ed Davey, Lynne Featherstone and
Simon Hughes, and the party is braced for the loss

June 2014:
The pragmatists have it – why Clegg
will cling on
by Stephen Tall on May 26, 2014

Thursday, 22nd May, was the Lib Dems’ own Black
Thursday. Over the following four long, agonising
days, the party watched as first the local and then
the European election results brutally revealed the
cost of entering into coalition with the Conservatives.
Had it been only the local elections which disappointed, the party might have shrugged it off as the
usual mixed bag: painful losses offset by successful
defences in held and target seats. But while losing
one election might be considered a misfortune, losing two look like carelessness. Though the Lib Dems
avoided the ultimate humiliation of being wiped off
the European electoral map – one of the party’s 11
MEPs survived – the party trailed in fifth place behind the Greens, its 7% share of the vote half that
won five years earlier.

its first post-war taste of national power. Defeated
councillor David Schnitz took to LibDemVoice to assert “with all the force of which I am capable that
Nick must stay”. International development minister
Lynne Featherstone, campaign manager for Chris
Huhne when he fought Clegg for the leadership and
whose London seat would likely be lost if these election results were repeated, praised him to the hilt:
“He is brave and capable, and taking us into government has achieved remarkable progress.”
The truth is that neither the rebels nor the loyalists
can offer a convincing argument of how, respectively, either ditching Clegg or sticking by him will
improve Lib Dem chances in May 2015.

#LibDems4Change pin their hopes on the belief that
Clegg’s departure, and his replacement by a more
socially liberal leader, will allow the party to woo
back those Lib Dems who’ve deserted the party for
Labour since the Coalition was formed. Yet polls
show neither Cable nor Farron would make much
difference to Lib Dems popularity – and of course
the moment either became leader they would be
Even before this humiliation was officially declared, subject to the same attacks which have been relentsome Lib Dem activists were calling for Nick Clegg’s lessly (and damagingly) levelled against Clegg these
head. An open letter was published by a group
past four years.
called #LibDems4Change urging fellow party members to elect a new leader “who will get a fair hearing Clegg loyalists pin their hopes on the belief that their
from voters about Liberal Democrat achievements
man will, over the next 11 months, earn belated recand ambitions for the future”. Its organisers are, in
ognition from the voters for his stoic resilience. Yet
the main, drawn from the social liberal wing of the
the 22 May elections give precious little indication
party, aggrieved at what they see as its right-leaning, this will happen. And his debate defeat at the hands
‘Orange Book’ direction under Nick Clegg: austerity of Nigel Farage showed that even Clegg’s mucheconomics, the NHS bill, ‘secret courts’ and the bed- vaunted communication skills may count for nothing
room tax are chief among their grievances.
if the voters don’t want to listen to him any more.
The hundreds who signed included a handful of parliamentary candidates. But current Lib Dem MPs
were more restrained. Even the most vocally critical
of the awkward squad stopped short of inciting regicide, with Southport’s John Pugh confining himself to
the more coded suggestion that the party “calmly
take a root-and-branch look at our current strategy,
including how and by whom it is presented”.
For many of the rebels, business secretary Vince
Cable remains the great hope: a Keynesian social
liberal who has never troubled to hide his discomfort
at serving in a Conservative-dominated cabinet. Few
doubt he’d love the chance to wear the crown. More
doubtful is his desire to wield the dagger. Indeed, he
squashed speculation about his own intentions, issuing a statement declaring (somewhat optimistically)
“There is no leadership issue”. Meanwhile the other
king across the water, party president Tim Farron,
appealed for unity: “it would be absolutely foolish for
us as a party to turn in on ourselves”.
Clegg is not short of loyalists among the membership. Many sprung to his defence, arguing it would
be folly to ditch the leader who had given the party

Between the rebels and the loyalists lie the rest of
us: the pragmatists. We fear, sadly, that Nick
Clegg’s lustre is too tarnished to be of much assistance to the party at the next election. Yet we don’t
buy the easy claim that swapping him for a Cable or
a Farron will magically transform Lib Dem prospects.
The status quo will, therefore, win by default. As Rab
Butler half-heartedly said of Anthony Eden, he’s the
best leader we have got.
And, of course, the big story of these elections was
Ukip’s continuing electoral success – the chief outcome of which is to make it far less likely that either
Labour or the Conservatives can win an outright majority in May 2015. A second hung parliament beckons. If the Lib Dems can retain around 40 seats (as
suggested by the local election results) Clegg will
once again be Kingmaker. What a comeback that
would be. No wonder he’s clinging on.
Available online at:

July 2014:
Why getting battered and bruised
may turn out to be an unavoidable
occupational hazard of being Lib
Dem leader

The Lib Dem manifesto-writing sausage factory is a
curious mix of democracy and patronage which
characterises much of the party’s internal processes
– the mostly-elected, 27-member Federal Policy
Committee, chaired by Clegg’s former PPS, Duncan
Hames, appointed a 12-member manifesto working
by Stephen Tall on June 20, 2014
group to be chaired by David Laws, who was nominated by Clegg. The FPC will sign off the final docuNick Clegg emerged from May’s local and European ment.
elections battered and bruised, but with his leadership intact – just about. The cack-handed attempt by It is, of course, a work in progress. In his Bloomburg
Vince Cable’s friend Lord Oakeshott to stir insurrec- speech, and a press conference a week later, Clegg
tion against Clegg by leaking unfavourable private
highlighted three of the emerging ideas. On the
polls he’d paid for in battleground seats backfired
economy, the Lib Dems would balance the budget
spectacularly. Though there’s no shortage of Lib
through a mix of spending cuts and tax rises, while
Dem activists none too chuffed with their leader,
safeguarding capital spending by re-incarnating
handing ammunition to the enemy is seen as an un- Gordon Brown’s ‘golden rule’. On education – a
pardonable act. Oakeshott was forced to resign from touchy area for the Lib Dems to venture any new
the party: Clegg stayed put. With no MP willing to
pledges – he promised to ring-fence spending on
challenge him, the coup quickly fizzled out.
children and teenagers “from cradle to college”.
But discontent remains, with dozens of local parties
holding meetings to vote on whether there should be
a leadership election. Though nothing like the 75
needed to trigger a contest will choose do so, each
one that no-cons the leader inflicts another wound.
Clegg knows he needs to do more than just survive.
Limping, beleaguered by unfriendly fire, towards
May 2015 – acknowledged to be a survival election
for the Lib Dems – won’t be good enough. He needs
to rally the troops, to inspire them that a great liberal
victory is possible (or, more realistically, that a truly
awful defeat can be avoided).
So Clegg’s sought to re-focus Lib Dem sights on the
2015 election. In a major speech in June at Bloomburg, he extolled its “unique mission” and promised
“a manifesto which will set out our own distinct ambitions for Britain”. Here was the Lib Dem leader differentiating himself from the Deputy Prime Minister.
Gone was his usual talk of “anchoring the government in the centre ground”. Instead, he declared, “I
have never been interested in power for power’s
sake. I have never been interested in coalition at any
cost. What I am interested in is Liberal Democrats in
government to build a more liberal Britain.”

Clegg also issued a ‘Parental Guarantee’ ensuring
all children will be taught a core curriculum by a
properly qualified teacher in every state-funded
school, including Michael Gove’s pet ‘free schools’.
Such ideas sit much more comfortably with Labour
than they do with the Tories. I’ve totted up the number of policies where Lib Dem policies overlap with
Ed Miliband’s. I make it 21 to date, including tax-cuts
for low-earners, the introduction of a Mansion Tax, a
major council house-building programme, cuts to
universal benefits for wealthy pensioners, rent reforms for private tenants, a living wage for public
sector workers, and an elected House of Lords.
If Labour ends up the largest single party in a hung
parliament – and if its activists are able to see past
the red mist which descends when they eye a Lib
Dem – there’s plenty of material for a Lib/Lab pact.
The same cannot be said of the Lib Dems and our
current Coalition partners. As the Queen’s Speech
showed, the cupboard is bare of ambitious reforms
both parties can unite behind.

Yet the trend in the polls is now turning in the Tories’
favour. It’s always the economy, stupid: Cameron
and Osborne are becoming the beneficiaries of the
This is the kind of attaboy-go-get-em-noausterity-delayed recovery. My current bet would be
compromise spirit the party needs right now. But it
that it’s they who end up with most MPs, though
doesn’t alter the fundamentals still facing the Lib
short of an overall majority. The Lib Dems and ToDems. As no-one, including us, believes we’ll win a ries might hate the thought of continuing to work with
majority in 2015, there’s only one way to implement each other, but the voters may leave them with little
liberal policies in government: by co-operating either choice. If so, getting battered and bruised may turn
with Labour or with the Tories. In which case, we’ll
out to be an unavoidable occupational hazard of behave to accept some of their illiberal policies we
ing Lib Dem leader.
don’t much like, they’ll accept some of our liberal
policies they don’t much like, we’ll each jettison
Available online at:
some of the impossible policies we’ve had to include my-total-politics-column-why-getting-battered-andbecause our activists cleave to them, and on the rest bruised-may-turn-out-to-be-an-unavoidablewe’ll work out some kind of compromise. If any of
that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve
been watching this Coalition for the past four years.

October 2014:
The Lib Dems are still alive… Just

seek an audience with HM The Queen. And even if
that seemed far-fetched, then it was sure it could at
least wrangle electoral reform on the way, putting
liberalism on a secure footing in parliament.

by Stephen Tall on September 9, 2014

We few, we happy few, we band of Lib Dems will
shortly gather in Glasgow: our final rally before the
election battle to come. The setting will once again
be the city’s confusingly cavernous SECC conference centre. Last year it was quite common to see
disorientated party members wandering around this
real-life Escher puzzle, sure they had been on their
way up to their intended destination only to discover
they had been deposited back down at the exit. The
best metaphors write themselves.

The reality? The AV referendum was lost, an elected
House of Lords defeated. The Lib Dems are once
again reliant on the Stakhanovite local fetishism of
its incumbent MPs and shadowy party patronage to
appoint its peers to the red benches.

And so the prospect of another five years’ coalition
appears to be more threat than promise, especially
as the Lib Dems will be in a weaker position next
time. In 2010, the party had won an additional million
votes on the back of ‘Cleggmania’ and David Cameron was desperate to clinch a deal which would
Just a few months ago, last March, the party met in make him Prime Minister.
York at its Spring conference. The sun was shining, A second Lib-Con alliance? Neither party is likely to
the mood was chipper. Nick Clegg had challenged
wear it. A Lib-Lab pact? Possible (there’s plenty of
Nigel Farage to a TV duel and the party was united policy overlap) but Labour’s visceral loathing of my
behind his call to take the fight directly to Ukip at the party means it wouldn’t exactly be a bed of red
European elections. We were ‘The Party of IN’ acroses. And it would put at serious risk those Torycording to the vacuous slogan no-one now admits to facing seats the Lib Dems are most likely to retain
having coined. In it up to our necks, it turned out.
next May.
Trounced by Ukip, even trailing the Greens in fifth
place, Clegg tottered – but he didn’t fall and he was- My hunch is the party will opt instead for the safer
n’t pushed. Party members have, stoically and by no harbour of ‘confidence and supply’, offering to prop
means unanimously, accepted he will lead us into
up a minority government in return for key concesthe general election next May.
sions, then vote on a case-by-case basis. A bit of
power in exchange for a bit of responsibility: it’s an
The leader may not have resigned, but resignation
eminently Lib Dem approach. Go back to your conhangs heavy in the air. Only the wildest optimists
stituencies and prepare to be both in government
think the Lib Dems can emerge from the next elecand in opposition.
tion unscathed. Right now, saving anything above 40
MPs would be regarded as a blazing triumph even
Survive and rebuild: these are the watchwords. On a
though it would leave a third of our current seats gut- good day, one senior Lib Dem MP reckons, “we
might only lose four or five seats”. Surprise gains
cannot be ruled out (Maidstone and Oxford West &
As anticipation of a revival has ebbed so too has talk Abingdon are oft-cited). But attention is turning to the
of a second term in government. In a sense this is
‘black spots’, the swathes of seats from which the
odd. Another hung parliament, most pollsters agree, party has been driven out. In 2010, it finished first or
is the most likely outcome in May 2015. This should second in almost 300 constituencies. I’d be surbe our dream: our Eden, Utopia and Promised Land prised if we made three-figures next time.
in one. But the cliché was right: be careful what you
wish for. Gone is the wide-eyed enthusiasm for gov- We’ve been here before, of course (whether Lib
ernment, replaced instead by a grim, taut wariness. Dems find that fact is comforting or depressing will
depend on their disposition). And yet, 80 years on
The last four years have cost the Lib Dems dear. Not from George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of
just in lost votes and members and councillors –
Liberal England – 25 years on from the badthough those losses have cut deep – but also in lost tempered merger which almost saw the Lib Dems
hope. The party knows it has notched up some big
strangled at birth – we’re still alive, still kicking. Don’t
policy achievements – tax-cuts for low-earners, the
read us the last rites just yet.
Pupil Premium, the Green Investment Bank – but
they seem scant compensation for the possible for- Available online at:
my-total-politics-column-the-lib-dems-are-still-alive-justfeit of two decades’ hard won advance. How much
closer are we to creating a liberal society?, the party about/#sthash.JYhRGHz0.dpuf
asks itself. Not nearly as close as we hoped, comes
the honest reply.
Once the party could kid itself it would leap-frog
straight into Official Opposition and then seamlessly

Coetzee label which can leave the party’s more organic activists wincing). Such voters respond especially well to party lines of which you can expect to
hear much more — “Labour wasted their opportunity
and ruined the economy”, “You can’t count on the
by Stephen Tall on October 20, 2014
Tories to care about others” — including the need for
The Lib Dem spinners were more than a little nervous the next government to be balanced and sensible. In
short, they like the idea of the Lib Dems being in
in the lead-up to the party’s conference in Glasgow.
power to leaven the worst effects of single-party rule.
Not about headline-grabbing policy defeats at the
hands of the party grassroots — carefully constructed
There is a problem, though. Those identified as supcompromises had been hammered out in advance.
Nor about any last-minute tilt at unseating Nick Clegg porters or potential converts represent only a little
more than one-fifth of the electorate. In other words,
— even those unhappiest with his leadership have
the upper limit of the potential Lib Dem vote next May
come to accept he will lead the party into the May
is less than the actual share of the vote the party won
2015 general election.
in 2010.
What did trouble them was the change in the usual
conference order. Traditionally, the Lib Dems are first Fortunately, the party has a secret weapon. Actually
it’s not a secret, but somehow that doesn’t lessen its
up among the three main parties. That normally
potency. It’s known as incumbency, the ability of Lib
means fine-ish weather, and, more importantly, that
Dem MPs to dig in locally — “like cockroaches”, as
political journalists are a little sunnier, too: less tired
party president Tim Farron once remarked — enaand cynically acerbic than usual.
bling them to buck the national trend.
But this year, the Lib Dems were last up, displaced by
The latest batch of Lord Ashcroft’s constituency pollthe Scottish independence referendum. Would the
press pack — which had already been on the road for ing, focusing on Lib Dem must-win seats and released in the run-up to the conference, showed just
a month, missing their families and subsisting on an
how important it is for the party. When the public was
away-from-home diet of canapés and late nights —
asked how they would vote in a general election in
take it out on Clegg & Co? The party’s media team
decided to send them small gifts, such as bunches of the Lib Dem / Tory battlegrounds, just 20% named
the Lib Dems. Yet, asked how they would vote in their
bananas, to cheer them up each morning.
own constituency, 32% opted for the Lib Dem candidate, a sizeable uplift of 12 per cent.
In the end, they needn’t have worried. Going last
worked well for the party. Labour’s ominously flat conference will be remembered for Ed Miliband’s glaring Such is the value of incumbency. Though the party
forgetfulness in his conference speech: his Freudian realises the loss of a swathe of Labour-facing seats
won on an anti-Iraq, anti-fees, anti-Brown backlash is
failure to mention the deficit or immigration was an
inevitable, two-thirds of its MPs will face Conservative
astonishing gift to his opponents. By contrast, the
challengers, and they are all still in play.
Conservative conference was remarkably chipper.
David Cameron, his position too weakened by Ukip’s
insurgence to be able to withstand his party’s push to It’s that reality which accounted for the dominant
mood in Glasgow: a grim, doughty determination to
the right, gave his delegates the red meat they’ve
beat the odds. Talk privately to senior Lib Dems and
been demanding: the promise of yet more hardline
most believe the party should hold at least 30, perpolicies on social security, immigration and Europe.
haps even 40, seats if they really buckle down in the
next six months.
It was all teed-up perfectly for Nick Clegg to remind
the party faithful (and, believe me, those of us who’ve
stuck by the party this far really are the faithful) of the Their campaigning activity is closely monitored by
party HQ; those whose efforts are found lacking get
key Lib Dem message: “The Liberal Democrats will
the hair-dryer treatment from Paddy Ashdown, the
borrow less than Labour, but we’ll cut less than the
former Royal Marine who Clegg, very smartly, put in
Tories. We’ll finish the job, but we’ll finish it in a way
charge of the party’s 2015 campaign. It was Ashdown
that is fair.”
who led the Lib Dems when the party doubled its tally
It’s an adroitly triangulated pitch which has been care- of MPs in 1997. He’s also a trained killer. His full skills
-set may be needed in the next six months if the Lib
fully tested by the party’s own private polling and
found to be popular not only with current Lib Dem vot- Dems are to survive the next election.
ers, but also with those who say they are open to the
idea of voting Lib Dem — “the persuadables”, as the Available online at:
party’s campaigns director Ryan Coetzee terms them. my-total-politics-column-the-coming-lib-dem-battle-topersuade-the-persuadables/#sthash.A63PRSqU.dpuf
Collectively, this group — which includes current Labour and Conservative voters as well as those who
are undecided — is the Lib Dem “market” (another

November 2014:
The coming Lib Dem battle to
persuade the “persuadables”

December 2014:
Tidings of comfort and joy for the
Lib Dems. Ish. Very ish.
by Stephen Tall on November 23, 2014
‘Tis the season to be jolly, even for Lib Dems. Bah,
humbug. A year ago, I made a prediction: ‘I don’t
expect to see much, if any, uplift in the Lib Dems’ flat
-lining 10% polling yet.’ If only… How I now yearn for
the times when the party’s support was stubbornly
stuck in double-figures. Instead our ratings have
dwindled to about eight per cent, barely ahead of the
Greens, and only narrowly edging out the surging
SNP in one national poll.

primarily responsible for our dire position in the polls.
Sure, there have been needless mistakes along the
way (tuition fees, bedroom tax); but what party of
government doesn’t mess up? The reality is that the
Lib Dem vote in 2010 was flattered by tactical voters
and protest voters: we have since lost half the former and all of the latter. No point trying to pin the
blame solely on Clegg for that.

Secondly, there is no-one ‘oven ready’ successor. In
2003, when the Tories finally tuned out of Iain Duncan Smith’s increasingly desperate attempts to turn
up the volume, Michael Howard was pumped and
primed. By contrast, Vince Cable, who, if he’d
wielded the sword might now be wearing the crown,
seemed detachedly ambivalent about doing so. And
Yet 2014 started with good cheer. The party was
Tim Farron, who clearly does harbour ambitions, has
braced for the European elections — even in the
no wish to lead the party this side of the coming
past when we were popular we’ve always struggled election. Besides, neither the unclubbable Cable nor
to sell our pro-EU message to a sceptical electorate the activists’ darling Farron would (unlike Howard)
— but united behind a positive message: ‘In Europe, have been elected unopposed; they each have put
in work’. It was a tight, focused pitch designed to
too many of their colleagues’ noses out of joint.
enthuse not only our core vote, but also to attract
Clegg has in part, therefore, remained in post faute
moderate Conservatives turned off by their party’s
de mieux. But that’s not the whole story: the Lib Dem
destructive Europhobia as well as fair-minded Laleader’s impressive achievement in keeping his MPs
bour voters who acknowledge the Lib Dems’ civilis- on-side — not one defection, or even a hint of one
ing role within the Coalition. In many ways, it was
— has been insufficiently recognised.
intended as a dry run for the campaign the party
hopes to run next May.
Thirdly, the Lib Dems are cussedly determined to,
once again, prove the doom-mongers wrong. Prior to
Nick Clegg upped the ante by publicly challenging
every election in my living memory, commentators
Nigel Farage to a live televised debate on Europe.
have prophesied our demise; but we’re still here. Of
Party activists began organising ‘Nick v Nigel’
course this time it will be different: we’ll have to deevents, hoping for a repeat of the triumph of 2010
fend our record in government. One thing will be the
when Clegg grabbed the election by the scruff of the same, though: Lib Dem resilience will depend not on
neck and gave the two major parties the fright of
our share of the national vote, but on our ability to
their lives.
win as many of our 75 target seats as possible. Our
hopes aren’t pinned on a repeat of ‘Cleggmania’, but
And then it all went wrong. The Ukip leader’s popu- on voters continuing to back their local Lib Dem MP,
list anti-immigration appeal to voters to stick it to
and a change in leader at this stage is unlikely to
Westminster and join his “people’s army” resonated. make any difference to their prospects.
A beaten Clegg was left looking tired, defensive, and
— worst of all — irrelevant. The Lib Dem campaign So Clegg is safe, at least until May. Beyond that,
never recovered. We lost 11 of our 12 MEPs (and
well, that’s in the hands of the electorate and the lap
retained that single one by a wafer-thin margin) and of the gods. If the Lib Dems do confound the polls
took yet another pounding in that same day’s local
and the pundits and retain a sizeable number of MPs
elections, losing a further 310 councillors. For a cou- — and if there is a second hung parliament — he
ple of days it looked like Clegg would, if he didn’t fall may once again be king-maker. How’s that for tidon his sword, be pushed onto it.
ings of comfort and joy?
Yet he survived. And he survived again even when, Available online at:
my-total-politics-column-tidings-of-comfort-and-joy-forat last month’s Rochester and Strood by-election,
the Lib Dems lost their eleventh deposit of the parlia- the-lib-dems-ish-very-ish/#sthash.A4rLM1uU.dpuf
ment, polling less than one per cent, a record low. If
Clegg were a Premiership manager, the Chairman’s
axe would have been swung by now. But the party
has stuck by him. Why? There are, I think, three
main reasons.
First, most Lib Dems recognise that it is the party’s
decision — freely and democratically entered into —
to form a coalition with the Conservatives which is