Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Britain's mid-terms: Conservatives advance, Liberal Democrats are hammered


...Oh, did I say 'tomorrow' when I last wrote, on Monday? What I obviously meant to say was 'Wednesday'. In the meantime I was hit by a particular spectacular outburst of 'essay-marking-itis', which was actually quite enjoyable in some ways. But anyway. I digress.

I said I'd come back to the results of last week's election and their implications for the two Coalition parties led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg (above). So here goes.

The Conservatives advance

The Tories did amazingly well last Thursday. Public sector cuts? A struggling economy? Policy imbroglios like tuition fees? Pah. In England, the Conservatives notched up more councillors and control over more local authorities - a feat not matched since 1998, in the pomp of New Labour. They even crept forwards a little in Wales, vital if they're to hold onto their seats there and push towards an overall majority come the next General Election. Chalk this up to two victories, one intellectual and the other political. The intellectual triumph of the Coalition has been to convince the public that everything bad that happens to the economy is Labour's fault - that Liam Byrne's notorious 'no money left' memo is right, and that the country is near bankruptcy. Not much could actually be further from the truth. But hey, it's how you tell them. The cunning plan on the political side has worked just as nicely. Essentially, the Conservatives have caused left-leaning Liberal Democrats and Labour tactical voters to desert the Lib Dems in their droves. That is why all - and I mean all - of the Conservatives' net council gains last Thursday can be explained by taking council seats from the Liberal Democrats, mainly in the South of England.

All of this means that David Cameron's position has been immeasurably strengthened. Holding off the Labour challenge while quietly euthanising his junior Coalition partners has meant that the Prime Minister is now lionised across the Centre and Centre-Right of British politics, and he's also increasingly feared on the Left. He might want to hold back on the sense of Flashman-style triumph, however. His party's share of the vote in England went up a great big one perecentage point on last year's vote, while Labour's rose by eight or nine points. The Conservatives went backwards in Scotland - yet again. And as Jackie Ashley has pointed out, Hubris is usually and inevitably followed by Nemesis. The day will come when Mr Cameron suffers serious reverses and needs all the friends he can get. Braying too much now will mean that his 'allies' melt away when he needs them.

The Liberal Democrats are hammered

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It's hard to know what to say really. In ascending order of awfulness, the Liberal Democrats went backwards in Wales, got slaughtered in England, and were obliterated in Scotland. There were very, very few bright spots on a terrible night. The party had in its very worst case scenarios worried away about suffering 600 losses in the English local elections. In the event, nearly 750 of their councillors lost their seats - a full third of all the outposts they were defending, not only in the North, to Labour, but also to the Conservatives across the South and South West. In Scotland, they lost seven MSPs to end up with just five - enough to form a quorum, perhaps, but not enough even to talk of a 'front bench' or 'backbenchers'. And where are the parties' electoral strengths in the Commons? Er, South West England, Northern cities and Scotland. It was just a fearful bucket of cold water to throw over a party that's got used to feel-good opposition. Organisationally, financially, and just in terms of sheer raw morale, the party cannot go through this again in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The Lib Dems would have been torn to shreds before they even reach the start line of a 2015 election campaign.

Now there are some crumbs of comfort. Where the party has a high-profile MP, and where activists are encouraged to hold the line, the Lib Dems' vote held up. In Eastleigh, Parliamentary base of outspoken Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne, the party did well. Similarly in Portsmouth, home of 'colourful' Mike Hancock, it was a good night for the Lib Dems. In Redcar, won on a huge swing from Labour in 2010, the party escaped with flesh wounds. Bristol Lib Dems might have lost control of the council, but they didn't lose many councillors - music to the ears of Bristol West MP Stephen Williams. But it's pretty thin stuff, really. Labour and left-leaning voters (who might turn to the Greens) are unlikely to turn up to save Lib Dems MPs in the next election - a poisonous situation. Fancy defending majorities of just a few thousand over the Tories in St Ives, Cornwall North or Taunton Deane? No? Me neither. And if I were Dunbartonshire East MP Jo Swinson or Edinburgh West's Mike Crockart, I'd be brushing up my CV right now. They're going to need a good resume when they're looking for a new job. Incumbency will help the Lib Dems less and less when new and larger parliamentary constituencies come into force - another cloud on a very, very dark horizon. The party just took an absolutely fearful shoeing, and they know it.

The one-sentence summary

David Cameron is getting stronger all the time, while the Liberal Democrats are fading fast: if they don't change something, they'll be able to meet in a phone box come 2015.

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