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Danny Alexander should be worried

Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander
Chief Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander

UPDATE: Poll shows Danny Alexander would not survive election if it was held tomorrow

Calum Ross, the P&J’s Westminster correspondent, looks at the potential implications of the European election results for next year’s UK vote.

Another election, another humiliation for the Liberal Democrats.

While much of the talk across the country has understandably been about the rise of UKIP, the extent of the decline of the coalition’s junior partner should not be overlooked.

Nick Clegg was facing fresh calls for his resignation after his party slumped to the latest in a series of new lows, losing all but one of its MEPs, and about 250 councillors down south, while finishing an embarrassing sixth overall in Scotland.

In Westminster terms, the Lib Dems still dominate the north of Scotland. They hold seven of the 12 seats in the Press and Journal circulation area, but major changes could be on the horizon if the party’s slide continues.

The Lib Dems’ northern heartlands had appeared to be the least likely to fall at next year’s general election.

Their MPs in the region are almost all high-profile “big beasts” – Charles Kennedy, Danny Alexander, Alistair Carmichael, John Thurso, Sir Malcolm Bruce, Sir Robert Smith and Alan Reid. Many of them also enjoy very large majorities, particularly Mr Kennedy and Mr Carmichael.

The European results did offer some positives for the Lib Dems in these areas. They came out on top again in Orkney and Shetland, confirming Mr Carmichael, the Scottish secretary, as the party’s safest MP. In Aberdeenshire too, the party retained its 14% vote share from 2009.

In the Highlands the Lib Dems finished second. But a closer inspection of the result reveals a trend that should leave alarm bells ringing for the leadership.

The party registered more than 2,300 fewer votes in the region than last time, when it topped the poll. They dropped almost 9% in terms of overall vote share, from 27.6% to 18.7%.

The SNP meanwhile overtook the Lib Dems to finish highest in the area, adding more than 5,000 votes and increasing its share from 27.3% to 30.3%.

This follows the Nationalists replacing the Lib Dems as the party with the most Highland MSPs in 2007, and extending that lead in 2011. While in 2012, the SNP overtook the Lib Dems to become the biggest party political group on Highland Council.

So does this mean that the likes of Danny Alexander, the fourth most powerful member of the coalition government, should start worrying about losing their seats next year?


In 2010, Mr Alexander won Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey with a majority of 8,765. A large margin, certainly, but by no means unsurpassable.

One of its predecessor seats – Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber – was famously a four-way marginal in 1992, with fewer than 2,000 votes separating the Lib Dem candidate, from Labour, SNP and the Conservatives.

The received wisdom is that constituents enjoy it when their local MP is a powerful member of the Cabinet. And Mr Alexander has been attempting to show the benefits of having him in place at the Treasury through fuel duty cuts, a freeze on whisky duty, a tax break for ski lifts and money to  revamp the London-Inverness sleeper train.

But on the other hand, the chief secretary to the Treasury is also overseeing billions of pounds of unpopular public spending cuts, and is a key figure in a party in free fall because it is seen by some to be enabling a Tory agenda.

Mr Alexander is not the only northern Lib Dem who may be becoming concerned.

Lord Thurso’s majority in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is 4,826. Sir Robert holds an advantage of just 3,684 in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and will be wary of signs of the Conservatives, his nearest rivals, gaining ground. Sir Malcolm, meanwhile, is stepping down at the election, leaving a questionmark hanging over his Gordon seat.

The extent of the threat to the Lib Dems is hard to predict.

The SNP may be strengthening its position in the Highlands, but the party has not performed particularly well in recent Westminster votes.

Much will be depend on September’s independence referendum, and in what state the SNP emerges from it.

One theory is that a “no” vote would leave the Nationalists in disarray, losing discipline and bickering over the mistakes which led to their moment in history being lost.

An alternative forecast is that, in spite of a “no” vote, the Nationalists will be emboldened by a rise in support for independence, gain a new generation of supporters, and be boosted by the fact some voters will be more likely to back the party because the independence issue has been put to bed, for a while at least.

(A “yes” vote, on the other hand, would render the result of the general election, and the future of Mr Alexander, relatively meaningless for Scotland.)

It is not only the SNP which could be smelling Lib Dem blood in the north.

In 2010, Labour was the closest challenger to Mr Alexander, Lord Thurso, Mr Kennedy and Mr Carmichael.

Labour also held the Inverness seat from 1997 to 2005, and the party performed well across the north and north-east in the European Parliament elections, adding almost 4,000 votes in the Highlands, where its vote share rose from 10% to 14%.

Despite this, Argyll and Bute was the only Highland seat named as one of Labour’s top 106 targets in a strategy document produced last year, suggesting the party may have overlooked an opportunity in the north.

Another question which could affect the north and north-east results next year is that of UKIP – whether it can maintain its progress and, if so, who will it take votes from.

It is always difficult to take one set of election results and use them to forecast a different contest.

However, Labour and the SNP do seem to be gaining ground in the Highlands and elsewhere, and the Lib Dems’ momentum is going in the wrong direction.

If Mr Alexander and his friends fail to turn their ship around, the Westminster electoral map in the north and north-east could look very different this time next year, with some major scalps potentially up for grabs.

On the other hand, it seems entirely possible that the party will be looking for a new leader next May, if not before, with the pool of viable replacements shrinking.

If the likes of Mr Alexander and Mr Carmichael do survive, there is every chance it will be one of them who is given the task of leading the party’s revival.