East meets Westminster: Eastleigh by-election has buoyed Lib Dem prospects

Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg

Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg - Credit: PA

Richard Porritt wonders if spring 2013 marks a turning point for the Lib Dems

The Liberal Democrats have had a dreadful start to 2013.

Their poll rating is hovering around UKIP’s, the party faithful are in a constant state of angst-ridden navel gazing over their coalition partners and then scandal struck.

And yet somehow from the ashes Nick Clegg managed to drag out a victory in the Eastleigh by-election. Much has already been said about the dismal performance of the Conservatives and the trend for people to back UKIP but the weight of Lib Dem achievement should not be underestimated.

Disgraced former MP Chris Huhne caused his party huge damage because he was an arrogant liar who initially believed the law did not apply to him. It would not have been unthinkable for the people of Eastleigh to punish the Lib Dems for his criminal behaviour. And yet Mike Thornton last week took his seat in the House of Commons.

Crunch the numbers from Eastleigh and what becomes clear is that the coalition is toxic for the Lib Dems – but it is even worse for the Tories. Mr Thornton lost more than 14% of the vote – but bearing in mind the rather sticky climate his party finds itself in that is no surprise. But the Tory candidate Maria Hutchings – who many thought would turn Eastleigh blue for the first time since 1994 – managed to lose almost 14% of the Conservative vote.

Bashing the Lib Dems has become something of a national sport since 2010 but what Eastleigh tells us is they are apparently not as damaged in areas where they have historic support as it may have appeared. They have always been well represented at local government level and this grass-roots politics might just see them though their current crisis.

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Colchester and its MP Sir Bob Russell are a perfect example of this. It is hard to imagine how bad things would have to get for the national party to wobble Sir Bob’s seat.

And now, as spring splutters to life through the snow flurries and ground frosts, Mr Clegg is determined to start anew himself.

Last summer Nick Clegg exclusively told East meets Westminster he would be happy to form a coalition with Labour after the next General Election. No. 10 were supposedly not impressed by this outburst but it was a breathe of fresh air after more than two years of sycophancy. Shortly after that revelation this column urged him to go all-out in attack of the Tories in a bid to save his vote and now it appears he is ready for open warfare with the party he goes to work with every morning and climbs into bed with every night.

Addressing the Spring Conference, Mr Clegg said: “There is a myth that governing together, in coalition, diminishes the ability of the smaller party to beat the bigger party.

“The idea that, in Tory facing seats the Liberal Democrats will find it impossible to distinguish our record, our values, from theirs. But that myth has been utterly confounded.

“The opposite is true. The longer you stand side-by-side with your opponents, the easier your differences are to see. We don’t lose our identity by governing with the Conservatives. The comparison helps the British people understand who we are.”

Easy for Mr Clegg to say that with the Easteligh victory safely in the bag but the truth is far simpler: The Lib Dems need to reinforce in the public’s mind that the coalition is far from a happy family. They have traditionally attracted a rebel vote – they were the party people turned to when they were sick to death of Labour and the Tories and yet not an extremist or willing to waste their vote on the Elvis for PM party.

But by being in cabinet the brand has been ideologically incorporated in to the mainstream. Now Mr Clegg believes that to grab back any of the lost vote he needs to bring politics down a few pegs to the level of pointing at David Cameron and shouting “nasty right winger”. It might not be pretty, but it might just work.

“They’re like a kind of broken shopping trolley,” he told his party earlier this week. “Every time you try to push them straight ahead they veer off to the right hand side.”

And he is, at last, making more of the differences between the partners – especially on elements like the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Theresa May made a speech arguing the option of leaving the Convention should remain ‘on the table’,” he added.

“Well, I tell you, it won’t be on the cabinet table so long as I’m sitting round it. Conference, make no mistake, no matter what the issue – safeguarding the NHS, creating green jobs, stopping profit-making in schools, preventing a return to two-tier O-levels – the Liberal Democrats will keep the coalition firmly anchored in the centre ground.”

And they have already had some success – the return to two-tier examinations for 16-year-olds being an excellent example of Lib Dem success.

But as the Tories continue to slip in the polls and Labour seemingly become stronger will the flirting between the junior partner and the opposition turn in to a very public hand-holding?

The Lib Dems should be careful around Labour – they have already tied their chances of success to another party once.

Eastleigh and spring 2013 could prove a turning point for the Lib Dems if those guns trained on No. 10 keep firing – right up to the general election.