How Ming could haunt a hung parliament

Liberal Democrat opinion poll ratings have fallen under Ming Campbell. But a hung parliament at the next election could force Gordon Brown to turn to them for support.

Sir Menzies Campbell opened this week's Liberal Democrat conference with an "astonishing pledge" to "hammer" up to two million middle-class families, said Ian Drury in The Daily Mail. If it ever gains power, the party plans to cut the basic rate of tax by 4p to 16p, replace council tax with a local income tax and introduce a raft of green levies. It also wants to abolish tax "loopholes" used by the super-rich, including the much-criticised tax taper relief, which has allowed private equity bosses to divert millions away from the Treasury and into their pockets. The package would affect couples earning more than £70,000 and single workers earning more than £46,000 and "especially punish" people living in London and the southeast, where incomes tend to be higher.

Ming's argument, that he wanted to penalise people who had done "too well" under Labour, is a "childish throwback to the politics of envy", said Rachel Sylvester in The Daily Telegraph. True, the wealth gap is widening, but those he wants to "clobber" hardly qualify as the "super-rich". Policeman and teachers, for instance, can earn more than £70,000. And the Lib Dems were "disingenuous to say the least" in their use of research to support their tax plans. They claimed a YouGov survey showed that 64% of people supported higher taxes on the rich, omitting to mention that the poll defined rich as "millionaires and those earning over £100,000". By trying to curry favour with his left-wing grassroots activists, Ming risks alienating the middle-class voters whose support he needs to win key seats.

Under Ming's stewardship, the Lib Dems' opinion poll ratings have already slid into the low teens, said Patrick O'Flynn in the Express. Unfortunately, for all their poor ratings and "apparent pointlessness", they "really do have reasons to be cheerful". All they need to "join the political jet set" is a hung parliament or a small Labour majority which will force Gordon Brown to "recruit them as ballast". A "stalemate" at the general election would "catapult them into the corridors of power", agreed Philip Stevens in the FT. But the Lib Dems can afford to be more ambitious: neither the Conservatives nor Labour have been able to break through the 40% in the polls. This presents a big opportunity for the Lib Dems, if they "keep their nerve". There is a market for the party's commitment to the environment: it has trumped the other parties by calling for carbon neutrality by 2050, wants to block new nuclear power plants and plans a host of green taxes and incentives.

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Nonsense, said Patrick O'Flynn. The Lib Dems' environmental policies are daft. Nuclear power is the only way to guarantee energy security and making the British economy carbon neutral by 2050 will "involve outlawing vast swathes of economic activity". And let's not forget the party's barmy ideas on immigration, said Sir Andrew Green, chairman of Migrationwatch, in the Daily Mail. Their call for an amnesty for thousands of illegal immigrants would do us serious harm. Firstly, it would reward the employers hiring illegal workers for below the minimum wage. Secondly, admitting up to a million low-paid workers and their families into the full benefits of our welfare state would be expensive. If a "realistic" 625,000 illegal migrants were to earn their citizenship, their net cost to the taxpayer would be up to £5bn a year. Quite, agreed Patrick O'Flynn. The Lib Dems "richly deserve to be down and out". The worry is that this time next year they might not be.