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Sunday, September 21, 2003

Will the Tories pay the price for Brent East?

For a hotel putting up representatives attending the Liberal Democrat Conference to give us all a Sunday Express to read over breakfast seems to be a small miscalculation. However, it did give us an opportunity to assess the reaction of the Tory press to Brent East. There was the predictable discussion about the impact on Labour and how Tony Blair's sheen of invincibility has now become tarnished. By far the best part however was the analysis of how the result will affect the Conservative Party. The most bizarre assessment of course was that of Iain Duncan Smith. He told his party's Scottish Conference that the Liberal Democrats had made a strategic blunder by winning the by-election. Even his own MPs laughed at that. The fact is that the Liberal Democrats have the sort of broad appeal that the Tories can only dream about. Our problem has always been convincing people that we can win. The events of the last few years and by-election successes such as Brent East are all painting a picture of success and credibility that is closing that gap in perception. Not only do we have experience of government in Scotland and Wales but we continue to make advances at local Council level and with 54 MPs and growing we can now be seen as a potential alternative government in waiting.

The Express reinforced that impression with an "Exclusive Poll" that forecasts "oblivion for top Tories". They had looked at the swing to the Liberal Democrats in Brent East and then analysed the popularity of the parties and individual candidates and the turnout in every constituency in the Country. They then calculated the significance of the Brent East result for each seat. They concluded that the Tories would be ousted as the official opposition and 13 members of the Shadow Cabinet would be out of a job including Oliver Letwin, Michael Howard, David Davis, Theresa May, Michael Ancram and David Willetts. Tim Yeo, Liam Fox, Nigel Evans, Tim Collins, David Maclean, David Liddington and Eric Pickles would also lose their seats. The Liberal Democrats would gain 91 seats, putting them on 143, two ahead of the Tories and Labour would just hold on with a majority of 33.

This sort of fantasy politics is fun of course and can give one a warm feeling every morning for a few weeks. The reality is that there is a lot of work still to do to make it happen. I have no doubt that we can claim the scalps of a few of those named if not the vast majority of them, but a lot of water has yet to pass under the bridge and we should not get carried away with the consequences of a mid-term by-election gain just yet. The opportunity is there, it is up to us to grasp it and run with it over the next few years.

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