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Euro election fallout leaves Clegg hanging by a thread – but Cameron and Miliband look safe

June 2, 2014

The aftershocks from the political earthquake of UKIP’s thumping victory in the European Parliament elections continue to rumble around British politics leaving Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in an increasingly precarious position. I have thought for some time that at least one of the three main parties would ditch its current leader before the 2015 General Election and it looks increasingly likely that it will be Clegg that goes.

It is clear that he is, at best, a lame duck leader, at worst, a major electoral liability. With him at the helm the Liberal Democrats are heading for a major reverse at next year’s General Election. Just how big is a matter of increasing speculation but they are already reconciled to losing many seats, although they cling on to the hope that they may still hold enough seats to be potential coalition partners for either Tory or Labour in a close election.

Clegg’s fate will be decided by two factors. The first is the feedback from the increasingly restless grassroots of the party, many of whom for the first time in a generation find themselves without any elected representatives among their ranks following the wipe out in the local and Euro elections. The cries of old hands that they have been there before don’t quite wash. They may have seen local authorities without any Liberals or Liberal Democrats in the 1970s, 80s or early 90s but what they haven’t seen is many of those authorities having a significant third party presence in the form of UKIP. This is a game-changer in terms of local and regional media coverage as much as it is nationally (as we have seen). It will squeeze the Liberal Democrats out of the picture.

Once this ugly new reality sinks in the calls for a change at the top will rise to a crescendo. But will they herald a leadership challenge?

On this front there is better news for Clegg. Is there an alternative leader?

Vince Cable would be the obvious choice this close to an election as he is already well-known with an appeal that stretches beyond the hard core Liberal Democrat vote. However, he is damaged goods having been the minister charged with introducing the about-turn on tuition fees that so severely wounded the Lib Dems and which will haunt them throughout next year’s campaign. Now, his close ally Lord Oakeshot has been forced to resign from the party over his botched attempt to further destabilise Clegg.

After Cable, the only other possible contender seems to be Tim Farron, the party’s president but outside the ranks of the Lib Dem activists the reaction to him will be “Tim who?”.

This lack of a clear challenger could save Clegg, assuming that he wants to be saved.

There won’t be any movement this week as the domestic political focus will shift to the Parliamentary by-election in Newark, never a Lib Dem prospect but one where a slump from third to fifth behind the Greens could still stoke up the pressure on Clegg to go.

Cameron has more to lose in Newark
We know there will be a strong UKIP vote but such is the public mood after the European Parliament elections almost anything short of a UKIP win in Newark will be viewed as a minor triumph for Cameron and the Tories. A modest majority of a couple of thousand would certainly cement Cameron’s position as Tory leader for the 2015 General Election. A UKIP win could set alarm bells ringing among Tory MPs and spark calls for a change at the top.

The Tories are traditionally the most ruthless in dispensing with their leaders so Cameron won’t be sitting that comfortably this week and is certain to use the row over the prospect of former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker becoming the next European Commission president to demonstrate his tough stance on all matters European. This is a godsend for him and may well be enough ensure the Tories  see off the UKIP challenge in Newark.

Labour’s progress enough for Miliband
Sitting quietly on the sidelines is Labour leader Ed Miliband. The doubts about his leadership haven’t gone away but neither have they grown.

Labour enjoyed enough success in London and other major cities in the local elections to enable him to claim it has positive momentum as we head towards 2015. It falls short of allowing Labour bosses to do more than dream about forming a government with an overall majority but, at the same time, gives them an almost plausible hope that those dreams might become reality. They know Miliband isn’t totally convincing and is struggling to connect with the wider public but they also know that there isn’t an obvious alternative and no coherent narrative that is likely to engage the public more. They will happily watch the Lib Dems fall apart and target their supporters from 2010 in the run-up to next year’s vote.

As for Europe – it’s a mess
Meanwhile, the important business of trying to pick up the pieces in Europe following the elections looks like a massive challenge, both on the overall political level and also from the perspective of the UK’s important financial services sector.

Stalemate? Making the Parliament work will be a huge challenge

Stalemate? Making the Parliament work will be a huge challenge

Two key UK MEPs stood down last month, Sharon Bowles of the Lib Dems and Peter Skinner, a Labour MEP. Both had been ugly influential in the key detailed debates about the rules and regulations that really matter to the insurance industry and wider financial services sector. The huge influx of UKIP MEPs will be a disaster as we know they won’t engage in those detailed debates. A recent post-election blog by the Association of British Insurers’ European head, Carol Hall, illustrates the extent of these concerns.

Much will hang on the appointment of the new president of the European Commission which is why that has become such a sensitive issue right across Europe. It seems to me that the real danger of appointing an EU insider is that he or she will be incapable of engaging with the public mood of disquiet about the direction the EU has taken in recent years thus alienating a large number of MEPs (not just UKIP) so much that the Parliament won’t be effective and may even grind to a halt.

In Europe, as in the UK, there is alot to play for politically in the coming weeks.

From → Politics

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