U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg gambled that a snap vote is his best chance of beating Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives in a special election caused by the resignation of a scandal-hit lawmaker.
Chris Huhne, a member of Clegg’s Liberal Democrat party who was energy secretary in the coalition Cabinet until last year, quit Parliament this week after pleading guilty to perverting the course of justice by asking his wife to say she was driving his car when it was caught speeding in 2003.
Clegg’s party said last night the election to replace Huhne will be held on Feb. 28, the soonest possible date. The Liberal Democrats will select a candidate on Feb. 9 and will aim to use their knowledge of the seat, which they’ve held since 1994, and where they dominate the local council, to defeat Cameron’s Tories, who came second in 2010.
“It’s very, very quick,” Rob Hayward, a political analyst who advises the Conservatives, said in an interview. “It’s a shrewd decision. They’re trying to ensure that Tory splits stay in people’s minds.”
Cameron’s Conservatives were divided this week by the prime minister’s plan to legalize same-sex marriage, with 136 of the party’s 303 lawmakers opposing it in a House of Commons vote.
Conservative Education Secretary Michael Gove today announced his second policy reversal in six months on plans to change the examinations taken by 16-year-olds. In September, he watered down his original plan to have students of different ability sit exams for different qualifications, while saying he still intended to abolish the current General Certificate of Secondary Education.
Following opposition from lawmakers and teaching groups, including Liberal Democrat activists, he has now dropped that proposal too. Instead the GCSE will remain, restructured to focus more heavily on examinations and away from coursework.
Clegg denied suggestions today that his party had forced the retreat, while telling reporters he’d “been working very closely over the last two weeks to get these proposals right.”
The special election will see the prime minister and deputy prime minister go head-to-head after months of increased tension between the two parties in the coalition, with rebel Conservative lawmakers killing changes to the upper House of Lords favored by the Liberal Democrats and Clegg’s party retaliating by blocking a redrawing of electoral boundaries that would have helped the Tories.
Eastleigh, the district up for grabs, is typical of those the Conservatives need to win if they’re to get a parliamentary majority in the 2015 general election. In 2010, Huhne won 47 percent of the vote for the Liberal Democrats, and the second-placed Conservative took 39 percent.
“Of course there are differences between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats; we shouldn’t hide them, we just need to be relaxed and grown-up about it,” Clegg said on his weekly phone-in program on LBC radio today. “I don’t think we need to be aggressive about it,” he said. “I think we need to be forceful but we don’t need to be insulting.”
With national polls now showing Liberal Democrat support at less than half the level of 2010, Cameron is under pressure to capitalize on his coalition partner’s weakness to deliver a victory.
Clegg, who had a surge in personal popularity during the 2010 election campaign, has seen his ratings slump since going into coalition with Cameron. A victory in Eastleigh would give heart to lawmakers who fear their own seats are vulnerable in 2015. He pointed today to moves by the coalition to raise the threshold for starting to pay income tax -- a key Liberal Democrat policy -- as an example of what he’s achieved in government.
“Fair taxation has been a thread running through the last 2 1/2 years,” Clegg said in a speech in London. “In recent times, given the continued pressure on household incomes, fairness in tax has been increasingly at the forefront of the public consciousness too.”
Asked whether he was concerned the campaign would focus too much on Huhne, Clegg said afterward he hoped it would not be conducted “in a mood or spirit of retribution.”