James Forsyth

Oldham East will determine whether Clegg or Miliband is the leader under pressure

Oldham East will determine whether Clegg or Miliband is the leader under pressure
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A few weeks ago Ed Miliband was the leader under pressure. There was, absurdly, talk of leadership challenges if things did not improve. But now all the pressure is on Nick Clegg, he’s the one facing stories about whether he can cope.

Whether the unforgiving media spotlight stays on Clegg or not will be determined by the re-run of the election in Oldham East and Saddleworth. The result of this contest will frame the first quarter of the political year.

If the Lib Dems take the seat from Labour, then Miliband will again be the leader under pressure. Clegg will have won the time and the space that he needs. The nerves of his party will be calmed and Clegg’s authority within it enhanced.

But if the Lib Dems do badly, then Clegg will remain in the firing line. A Labour hold would cement the impression that Ed Miliband is getting a grip, that his beefed up leader’s office is now delivering for him. It would also help him in his aim of dividing Clegg from his party and traditional Lib Dem voters. He’ll be able to frame the victory as a plea to slow the pace of the cuts, an aim that many Lib Dem voters are sympathetic to.

The nightmare scenario for Clegg is that the Lib Dems are pushed into third place in what is a three-way marginal. This is unlikely given how the Tories are soft-pedaling their campaign. But if it were to happen, it would confirm Lib Dem’s worst fears about what the coalition is doing to their identity and electoral prospects.