Ladies and gentlemen, at the risk of appearing arrogant and boastful about my own considerable skills and experience in political strategy, may I take you back to my blog of January 2, headlined Both governing parties deserve to be punished for Tory by-election pull-out.
‘I know that we are into a new and different sort of politics,’ it began ‘what with two parties forming the government and all that, but the bigger of those two parties really is taking the mick in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. Both parties deserve to be punished as a result.
It takes a fair bit for me to feel sorry for a Tory, but it is hard not to feel some sympathy with the Tory candidate, Kashif Ali, who has effectively been thrown to the scavenging Lib Dem wolves.
From David Cameron down, the message is clear – we will say we are pulling out the stops for poor old Kashif, but we’re not really, and for heaven’s sake don’t do anything that looks remotely like an organised campaign. International development minister Andrew Mitchell seems to have gone further, saying they will do all they can to help the Lib Dems.
Back in the days before Nick Clegg decided that being deputy prime minister was more important than any principle, or any promise made in opposition, Lib Dems used to love a good by-election. They lived for them. They won a fair few of them too, not least by engaging in the kind of tactics that saw Labour MP Phil Woolas stripped of the seat.
So it is all a bit pathetic to see the PM so worried about the declining status of his deputy that he has to help out the Lib Dems in case the vote undemines Deputy Clegg any further.
But in doing so, they are effectively saying to the voters in this three-way marginal that they don’t count for much. A party that sets out to lose clearly does not deserve to win; but nor does the party their shabby approach is seeking to help.
And poor old Clegg cannot see that what the Tories are really up to is being in a position to say, however badly they do next Thursday, that they didn’t expect anything better because they were trying to help the Lib Dems. And if the Lib Dems do badly, well, it just adds to the ‘poor old Nick’ feeling which, a few years down the track, is exactly what Cameron wants to be surrounding his nominal Number 2.
So what with the Tory VAT rise coming in the build up to the vote, and a good Labour candidate in Debbie Abrahams, there is every chance the Tory tactic will backfire. It certainly deserves to.’
And indeed it did. The Tories are now seeking to make out, with some justification, that many of their voters shifted to the Lib Dems, while the Lib Dems are seeking to maintain that all of their votes really were for them, as opposed to loaned tactical votes.
When they used to win them, the Lib Dems saw by-elections as the most earth-moving events anywhere on the planet that champagne-cork-popping Friday morning. Now they lose them, it is a very different story. No lasting significance, to be understood, blahdiblah.
They are also saying the vote came as difficult decisions were being made by the government. True, but missing the point. The public will always understand difficult decisions. But in the case of most of the difficult decisions being forced on people now, neither of the governing parties said they would be making them. Indeed in the case of VAT rises, they said they definitely wouldn’t be making them, in the case of tuition fees the Lib Dems said they would never vote for them, and these reversals are going to haunt them all the way to the next election, their excuse that ‘the books’ made these decisions inevitable getting thinner as time passes and Labour mounts a sustained fightback against Tory arguments which took too deep a hold while we were electing a new leader.
I don’t think Bob Diamond of Barclays Bank did the governing parties any favours either, reminding people of all the Cameron-Osborne-Clegg tough talk on bankers, which produced nothing. And the massive cuts announced yesterday by Manchester council as a result of Osborne’s overall package of cuys may also have lost the Tories and the Lib Dems a few late votes.
Of course before too long the media circus will move on and the brouhaha will calm. By-elections are never quite as seismic as the Lib Dems used to say and I like the ‘no getting carried away’ tone of Labour’s response.
But in addition to shaking up Clegg and David Cameron a bit I hope the result will shake up the media a bit too.
There is something of a parallel universe going on, with the media focusing largely on big picture, body language between Tories and Libs, all persuading themselves Ed Miliband is not cutting it, and a sense of the coalition having no option but to do all the difficult things they are doing … while in the real world you hear more and more about broken promises, rising prices, the massive impact of cuts in real communities, and the coalition not quite fitting the ‘too effective’ description Clegg has applied to it.
To hear the BBC political editor this morning talking of ‘sighs of relief’ in the HQs of both governing parties suggests to me the coalition-media honeymoon goes on. I think for many members of the public, it ended some time ago.