Would Clegg’s approach to Labour be the campaign issue?
The suggestions that Mark Oaten might quit his Winchester seat before the general election and create a by election creates big challenges for both Nick Clegg and David Cameron.
For the newly-energised Tories, flushed with confidence following Crewe and Nantwich, would fancy their chances in a seat that was lost to the Lib Dems by just two votes at the 1997 general election. Then the result was contested in the courts, a re-run was ordered, and Mark Oaten was returned with a majority of more than 21,000.
Today things have moved on with Cameron’s Conservatives being widely seen as the winners of the next general election and with their eyes on a whole raft of seats that were lost to the Lib Dems while they were perceived as “the nasty party”. A Winchester by election could be a massive test of the extent to which that is going to be possible.
For the Conservative by election machine would surely make Nick Clegg’s ambivalence to Labour the key issue of the campaign. If you want to send a message to Gordon Brown, electors would be told, then there is only one way of doing it – elect a Tory again.
Clegg’s approach to the Lisbon treaty referendum and the scenes we saw in the Commons a few months ago would be played back again and again. His party would be portrayed as the agents of Gordon who are standing in the way of proper change.
Defending their 7,473 majority in these circumstances could be very tricky. For the hard fact is that the Lib Dem leadership has yet to articulate an approach to David Cameron that sounds convincing. The line that was coming from Nick Clegg earlier in the week is hardly compelling.
Clegg and others in the party should do everything they can to persuade Oaten to hang on until the general election. Whatever the former leadership contender is demanding he should be given it – he has Clegg over a barrel.
UPDATE – Mark Oaten, the Lib Dem MP for Winchester, has posted a response to this article and to your comments, refuting The Times claim that he has made a public statement about his future. I have confirmed the veracity of this comment with Mr Oaten via his Parliamentary e-mail address. Mr Oaten’s response can be found at post 257. – Morus
SECOND UPDATE The Portsmouth News is carrying a report tonight under the heading – “MP says he will go before an election”. – Mike Smithson. So this gets more confusing.