I delayed commenting on the by-election results- partly because of themselves they are not particularly important. However the reaction to the results I think is becoming quite significant.
I have written elsewhere, that these by-elections were important for the Liberal Democrats, since a fall back would have shown some very serious problems. However moving from third into second at Sedgefield and dramatically cutting the majority in both seats is a good result.
Could it have been better? Yes, we could have won in Ealing Southall, and the stubborn and well funded campaign by the Tories in fact stopped us from doing so.
However, the big winner is Gordon Brown- he retains his M.P.s. The second winner Is Sir Ming Campbell who will still muttering from certain quarters- including this one.
It is obviously David Cameron that emerges from these contests severely bruised- the candidate stood as "David Cameron's Conservative", Cameron visited the constituency several times and even selected the candidate independently of the normal procedures. Grant Shap through his inexperience made a serious of important blunders and ultimately dropped his leader deeply in trouble- reinforcing a growing perception of Cameron as a lightweight and opportunist figure. Nevertheless in my judgement it would be crazy of Cameron to go into "back me or sack me" mode just because a few malcontents are speaking up against him: though the fact they are speaks volumes over the failure of party discipline in the Conservative Party.
The problem that Cameron faces is that he is considered a little too smooth in the atmosphere of new seriousness that the accession of Gordon Brown has added to the political mood music. Yet, Cameron can not do much different from what he is doing- await the protracted process of party reports to reestablish some kind of coherence to the political platform of the Tories. However he may have further problems with his own side. This Op-Ed piece in the Telegraph suggests that the Conservatives should re-iterate that they are they party of reduced state power and lower taxes.
The problem is that the Conservatives are neither of these things. The lingering support for ID cards and the continued support for the myriad of other illiberal pieces of Labour legislation like the extension of the time that a suspect may be held without trial, marks the Conservatives out as the paternalist and centralist party that they have always been when in office. Neither can the Conservatives put forward new lower taxes, since they are very largely committed to the full programme of Labour expenditure (or what politicians call "investment").
The Liberal agenda, once partially espoused by the Conservatives under Thatcherism, has been fully reclaimed by the Liberal Democrats- at its heart is a dramatic reduction in the power of Whitehall and the reassertion of local control in key areas. Part of the key to achieving this is a switch in control of taxation down to local government- genuine "localism". More important will be defining the limits of State Power- in the economy as well as the traditional Liberal area of civil liberties.
Clearly, there also needs to be a dramatic change in the levels of taxation as they apply to the lower paid. It is absurd to argue that higher taxes for the lower paid is in any way beneficial to the UK economy, and the closing of several loopholes for the well off would only match the tax burden already levied on the poorest earners. Despite the absurdly unbalanced income tax structure, the Conservatives still fret more about inheritance tax than about the unfair income tax system- merely demonstrating how out of touch they remain. The point about the Liberal Democrats is that they are now committed to strictly limiting the overall tax burden- all our polices over the past few years have been generally revenue neutral. In several key areas, the emphasis is moving to reducing that burden on key sectors of society.
As for Sir Ming, the new mood of seriousness may well play to his strength of gravitas. The greater formality of politics that seems to be on offer from Gordon Brown would likely boost him a contrast to the "first name terms" politics of Cameron (and indeed Blair). As a leader, amongst the Lib Dems he has turned the parliamentary party into a dramatically more potent force. he has allowed policy formation to become far more integrated- and many Lib Dem policies are becoming mainstream indeed. My concerns with Ming have all been about image, and to a certain extent about language- I still do not accept the "politician of the centre-left" labelling. However, now I see in the mood of new seriousness that Ming may in fact end up as a serious asset- the intellectually coherent tortoise catching the scatty Cameron hare.
So well done to the Lib Dem by-election teams, you have set the cat amongst the Tory pigeons, and though any damage from these elections to the Conservatives might be quickly forgotten, we have reduced still further their freedom of action. They are becoming outflanked on policy and suffering a serious crisis of confidence. Any further mis-steps by "David Cameron's Conservatives" could well become an existential crisis that the current situation for them is not- yet.