The Liberal Democrats have a different relationship to the popular press than the other two main parties, both more afraid and more contemptuous. This I suspect contributed to the slightly unwise tone of Nick Clegg’s statement last night. His declaration that ‘I will not stand by and allow my party to be subject to a show trial of innuendo, half-truths and slurs’ was hardly what you would expect from a party leader trying to show humility.
One of the reasons that the Liberal Democrats are particularly sensitive to press coverage is the party’s memory of the unraveling of the Cleggmania. Until then, the Liberal Democrats had simply not been covered in the same way as the other two main parties. They then got two years of negative coverage in two weeks. The party ended up actually losing, rather than gaining, seats on polling day.
Talking to Liberal Democrats, I sense that some are beginning to worry that the same thing might be happening to them again. They are particularly jumpy about the coverage they are getting in the Mail, the most read paper in Eastleigh. Most, though, believe that the Eastleigh redoubt is strong enough and localised enough to withstand these national explosions.
From the Tories down in Eastleigh, there’s a sense that the Liberal Democrats will still hold the seat. But several add the caveat that if the coverage of this scandal stays on the front pages all the way to polling day, then things could get interesting. One thing adding to the uncertainty is that the Labour seems stuck in the low double-figures, a Daily Echo poll of its readers in Eastleigh town found that even there Labour were only on 12 per cent.