Lib Dems adopt grim determination… and shirt sleeves
Danny Alexander is not without ambition. Over time he has tried various tactics to convince Lib Dems that they should take him to their hearts and consider him future leadership material.
Time and again the mission has failed. He’s tried talking tough on the Lib Dem litmus policy of nuclear weapons, but that didn’t work.
He’s tried attacking the Tories with whom he so often agrees in government – again, not all Lib Dems have been convinced (Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander searched fruitlessly for political differences in the early days of the Coalition until Mr Letwin discovered he was slightly stronger on animal rights than Mr Alexander).
Today, Project Danny tried a new tactic. The Chief Secretary of the Treasury delivered his stern message on the economy in shirt sleeves.
We will have to wait to see if the informal approach works (informal-ish – it was a crisp white business shirt of the kind conventionally and probably until a few minutes before he came on stage worn with a tie).
The first response from Lib Dem ministerial colleagues was less than encouraging.
He announced a new fiscal rule, a redistributionist pledge to put the burden of future tax changes on the better off. But he didn’t do any more shading-in on where the Lib Dems will raise money for 2015-20 deficit reduction.
Steve Webb, the pensions minister, gave a bit more of a clue on that. He signalled that the party had its eyes very much on the £37bn in pension relief beyond the cuts already identified in that bounty.
Steve Webb might be an outsider to watch if the Lib Dems suffered an electoral calamity at the general election and Nick Clegg decided to step down immediately.
Vince Cable has indicated privately to friends that he might still consider an uncontested, caretaker leader role in that event. Ed Davey is still keen to try for the leadership.
Tim Farron has been a hugely energetic president but a less effective federal executive chair in many senior Lib Dems’ minds. He’s won great admiration as a Boris-style cheer-up-the-grassroots figure but might struggle to win senior Lib Dem backing for the big job.
At a lunchtime meeting closed to the media, Paddy Ashdown told members how party polling in marginals should give them hope.
Where the Lib Dems MP’s name was mentioned, Lib Dems polled better than they do in the anonymous Ashcroft polling. When specific Lib Dem policies are mentioned they sometimes lure over more voters too.
The Lib Dems are not suggesting they will make a net gain in seats in the election. Some have stopped talking about returning 40-plus MPs and scaled down expectations to 30-something seats. Some ponder 20-something.
I suggested to Paddy Ashdown that his audience didn’t exactly look ecstatic as it drifted out of the meeting hall. He said the faces showed “grim determination”.
At another lunchtime fringe held by Centre Forum and the Fabian Society, two Labour MPs debated with a Lib Dem minister and peer. Baroness (Julie) Smith said a coalition with Labour was unlikely and would happen over Ed Balls’ dead body.
The Lib Dems in the audience bayed. Norman Lamb said it would be very tricky for the Lib Dems to prop up a Labour administration if Labour had sneaked into office on a derisory share of the vote.
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