Friday, April 2, 2010

Does Clegg know the meaning of the phrase 'hostage to fortune'?

Just about the only crumb of comfort I took from the depressing triumph of Labour's politics of fear and smear at the Glenrothes by-election eighteen months ago was that, weird though it may seem, the outcome made Nick Clegg look a bit of a fool. Just a few months earlier he had tried to jump on the bandwagon of the SNP's spectacular victory in Glasgow East by declaring (in the middle of what must surely have been one of the world's most tedious ever webcasts) that "Labour will lose every by-election they fight in the remainder of this parliament". It was always a very silly prediction to make, because even if Labour's level of unpopularity had remained constant, there was simply no way of knowing what seats were likely to fall vacant, and what the local circumstances would be.

Well, now Clegg has come out with an even more rash claim. The Herald reports that he has branded the SNP an "irrelevance" at Westminster elections - on the grounds that the Liberal Democrats, not the SNP, are "Scotland's second party" at Westminster. In the literal sense, the latter point is of course perfectly true - the Liberal Democrats were in second place in 2005 both in terms of votes and seats, with the SNP in third on both counts. The trouble for Clegg is that there's almost no-one outside his party who seriously expects the Lib Dems to maintain that position this time round - their success in the popular vote in 2005 was almost certainly a one-off caused by Iraq and the 'Kennedy factor'. The latest YouGov poll shows the SNP firmly back into second place on 24%, six points up on 2005, while the Lib Dems languish in a dismal fourth, with their vote having virtually halved to just 12%. It looks near-enough inevitable that Clegg's definition of what constitutes an 'irrelevant party' in Scotland will be coming back to haunt him in only a few short weeks.

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