The dominant narrative in the build-up to these local elections has been all about UKIp vs the Tories, with a bit of angst about Labour’s southern mission thrown in. The Lib Dems didn’t really get a look in. They had moved to a reasonably stable position after romping home in the Eastleigh by-election, but today’s results could change that. Their awful showing in South Shields – coming 7th – will shake the party, but so will any surprise big losses. The party has already failed to take control of Somerset County Council, which was one local authority it had focused a great deal of effort on.
Sending out Tim Farron to do the expectation management hard work this morning was a good attempt at maintaining party unity. Farron is a plain-speaking party president who likes acting as a pressure valve for the Lib Dem grassroots. And rather than trying to spin like a ballerina, he cut to the chase, saying the result in South Shields was ‘shocking’ for the Lib Dems, who had been ‘obliterated’.
But the scene is already being set for the post-election Coalition pushmi-pullyu to start doing its little dance from the centre-ground to the right and back again. Grant Shapps said earlier that he and colleagues had heard the message from those who had backed UKIP that voters wanted the party to get on with it. Farron, meanwhile, warned the Tories against leaving the centre-ground. It’s almost a direct replay of the warnings the Lib Dems issued to their partners about a ‘lurch to the right’ after Eastleigh. Farron said:
‘The danger here is, I think particularly for David Cameron and the Conservatives, is that they will go and chase far-right votes rather than giving what Britain really needs, which is centre-ground, moderate, sensible, level-headed leadership in really difficult times.’
Perhaps Farron and Nick Clegg will start talking about that difficult shopping trolley again as they try to avoid their own post-election jitters.