10 March 2013

Eastleigh signals the beginning of the end for Clegg not the end of the beginning

The Lib Dem victory in the Eastleigh by-election has been widely signalled as the start of the Lib Dems' fightback and an acceptance that Nick Clegg's strategy in government is beginning to pay off.

But even before this weekend's conference rebellion on secret courts and high profile resignations by Jo Shaw and Dinah Rose, this analysis was wrong.

Eastleigh was no victory for Clegg or his strategy (if he has one) in government.  It was a victory for local activism - built up over the years - standing up for local people, doing the right thing by them where possible and explaining why sometimes you can't.  Clegg's hopeless responses as the Rennard storm engulfed him and the party were nearly responsible for throwing the seat away, when instead he should have been giving the local campaigners the cover they needed and deserved.

Because Eastleigh wasn't lost (when by all reasonable political analyses it should have been) - Clegg has been able to claim victory and in his latest missive to members talks about 'keep winning'.  But as this weekend's conference rejection of the leadership's illiberal support for secret justice, Eastleigh was a victory for the party's footsoldiers - and they know it.  Activists know that they - not Clegg - hold the key to the party's future success.

And that means Clegg's future is now out of his hands.  He cannot afford to carry on blithely ignoring the party in pursuit of some soggy centrist governance - like he has over secret courts.  The party is nothing if not liberal and it is demanding concrete liberal gains in government from his leadership.

This attitude is summed up by former Cambridge MP, David Howarth, who said of the secret courts issue, "This is not about policy or about deals: it is about who we are. This bill does nothing to help the security services to gain more information or foil more plots. All it does is give them an unfair advantage in cases where they are accused of kidnapping and torture. Again, anyone who cannot see that is fundamentally wrong and not liberal."

The party is now demanding red meat from its side of the government.  If it doesn't get it soon it will come for its pound of flesh - in the form of Clegg's leadership. 

You can read Jo Shaw's resignation speech here.

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