Osborne has done the Lib Dems’ work for them
People wonder why Liberal Democrats retain the will to live. Year after year their remaining members trudge to party conference, this time in the misty far-away lands of Glasgow, and continue a journey that surely leads to electoral oblivion. How can a party on eight per cent of the vote, with an election in less than a year, keep its head?
When we look back on our darkest moments, we often wonder how we got through them. The answer is that humans are a uniquely optimistic species. We all think we're going to win the lottery, but none of us think we're going to get cancer. In trying circumstances, we find a glimmer of hope and focus on that. Aspiration is the defence of the soul. For the Liberal Democrats, that great hope is provided by the Conservative party.
Amid all the jubilation over the Conservative conference last week, commentators and politicians neglected to mention the effect of right-wing Tory economic policy on Lib Dem-Conservative marginals. When people say things like 'elections are won in the centre' they are not expressing some abstract ideal. It is concrete and real.
George Osborne used his speech to outline £25 billion in further cuts, which becomes £32 billion when you add the £7 billion in tax cuts promised by David Cameron. He also ruled out any tax rises, so the money will be paid through cuts to working-age benefits and public services.
It's music to the ears of Lib Dem officials. Osborne is doing the party's differentiation strategy for them. Senior Lib Dem strategists I spoke to last night were positively jubilant about the Tory conference. Osborne throws them elections slogans like confetti.
Imagine you are a voter in Eastleigh, which the Lib Dems hold on to by a slim majority of 1,711 votes. It's not a wealthy area. What possible reason could voters there have to vote Tory? They will not be motivated by scrapping the Human Rights Act. A concerted negative election campaign about Tory economics should keep the Lib Dems in charge.
The Tories' shift to the right is the reason Lib Dems are maintaining support in Tory marginals, with an average of just two per cent slipping to the Tories in Lord Ashcroft's selection of target seats. There are plenty of areas the Lib Dems will improve their share of the vote against their coalition partner.
The same does not hold true against Labour. Left-wing voters are going to punish the junior coalition partner in Lib Dem-Labour marginals, probably by more than the 12% predicted by the Ashcroft polling.
This is the result of the political echo chamber the Tories have devised for themselves. After the 2010 general election, right-wing Tory MPs decided they lost because they were straddled with Big Society gobbledegook to sell on the doorstep, instead of firm lines on immigration and benefits. Their argument was that the party had detoxified too much, rather than too little. In the years since they have exercised extraordinary pressure on the party leadership, which has bent readily to their will. Their cheerleaders in the press and the threat from Ukip have crowded-out any opposing voices. To them, really quite right-wing policies are common sense and electoral dynamite. They mistake their followers for the public at large.
The truth is rather different. Voters who have not benefitted from the economic recovery so far are unlikely to be tempted to the Tories by the promise of Disneyland tax cuts in a mystical future and very real cuts to public services taking place immediately.
And there is something broader and harder to define than simple economic self-interest. The Tories have re-earned the 'nasty party' moniker. The constant negativity, the attacks on human rights, the incessant bleating about Europe, the 'go home' vans, the prisoner book ban – these policies are often neutral or even popular on their own, but taken as a whole they give an ugly impression. Many essentially conservative voters (with a small 'c'), who should be prime pickings for a Tory party facing a weak Labour opposition, are turned off by this Little Englander negativity. They do not want to be governed by Daily Mail editorials.
The best thing that happened to the Lib Dems is the current state of the Tory party. Egged on by a supportive press, terrified by a surging Ukip and held at gunpoint by bonkers backbenchers, it has veered sharply to the right. Osborne has made sure that the strategic anti-Tory vote is more tempting than the desire to punish the Lib Dems for coalition. As depressing as things look in Glasgow, there is a clear glimmer of hope for the Liberal Democrats.