Question: what is the closest to a election that a party has released its manifesto? Because I’m pretty sure that outside of snap elections called at breakneck pace, the SNP choosing today to launch theirs must be one of the latest. Indeed, judging from some of the comments I’ve sen, it may be a real first in a party delivering its manifesto after votes had started being cast – some places had their postal ballots arrive at the weekend. That’s something that could raise an interesting discussion – what if you cast a postal vote for a party and then they surprised you by putting something in their manifesto that you fundamentally disagreed with? Is the answer that you should’ve waited, that they should’ve published earlier, or some combination of both?

With it being the SNP’s day in the spotlight, it’s a chance for London-based journalists to start revealing just how little they know, and Bill Turnbull got off to a fine start on BBC Breakfast this morning. Turnbull was interviewing a somewhat bemused Stewart Hosie (SNP Deputy Leader) about Trident, and seemed to be labouring under the impression that if there was a minority Labour government, the SNP would have some magical power of veto over them. It does sadly show how much Tory propaganda has sunk in that it didn’t occur to someone with years of journalistic experience that if Trident renewal was up for debate in the Commons, there’d have to be quite an odd situation going on for the SNP to be voting with the Tories to get rid of it.

It’s not just Turbull, though. All across the spectrum, political journalists and commentators – the elite experts who are meant to be explaining these things to us – are falling over themselves to tell us it’ll all be far too complex. Just as we saw in the run up to the last election, when the idea of a coalition and a hung Parliament was getting closer, it’s becoming clear just how hard it is for some of our media class to think outside the box. But then, this is a country where the comments of someone who may or may not be running for US President next year were ranked above any mention that Finland had an election yesterday, and even when Germany or France have elections, there’s no danger of Dimbleby being brought out to anchor all-night coverage of it, or armies of reporters travelling all over them to tell us what the race looks like from Dusseldorf or Lyons. Too much of our coverage is based on the idea that elections have to have winners and losers, and can’t be expressions of opinion. Maybe we’ll get a result this time that shakes that consensus a little more.

On a related note, I’ve noticed a similar consensus in reports looking ahead to the post-election period that seem to be assuming that Liberal Democrat MPs can be easily added to the Tory pile when considering the potential deals. Andrew George’s comments on this aren’t outside the party mainstream, and I know very few people – online or off – who’d be enthusiastic about a second coalition with the Tories. I’m sure there are some in the leadership who’d prefer it, but they’re going to have to convince the party to go along with it, which is going to be a significant issue at all the stages of agreement the leadership would need (Parliamentary party, Federal Executive and Conference). A lot depends on the final outcome of the election and how the coalition maths end up, but there are significant swathes of opinion in the party who’d prefer no coalition or one with Labour to carrying on with the Tories.

A very interesting discovery on Election Leaflets today, of a letter from Michael Fallon, flagging him up as Secretary of State for Defence to voters in Barrow and Furness playing up the threat of a Labour government ‘propped up by the SNP’ not renewing Trident. This is real ‘all politics is local’ territory as Barrow is where Vickers/BAE carry out the maintenance of Trident submarines (if you ever go to Barrow, that’s what the giant buildings looming over the town are for) and the only time it’s not been held by Labour since WW2 was in the 80s, when Labour were either either in favour of disarmament or seen as weak on keeping it. Labour have a decent majority there (over 5,000 in 2010), but worries about losing jobs at Vickers drove those losses in the 80s and could be just as strong today. Might be worth adding Barrow to the list of seats to keep an eye on for interesting results on election night.

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The important thing to remember here is that there are still four weeks until election day. As I’m writing this, nominations are still open and agents are making their last minute dashes to the council office to get their final nomination forms in, and there’s probably someone, somewhere in the country who decided last night that ‘hey, why don’t I stand for Parliament?’ who’s spent today getting their form filled in and found £500 to pay their deposit.

Just as a comparison, at this point in the 2010 election, Parliament was just being dissolved and the election campaign was really only just beginning. Four weeks is a hell of a long time in electioneering, and in years gone by, we’d have seen the entire election campaign unwinding in a shorter period.

Which is why I’m wondering what’s gone wrong with the Tory campaign that’s made them decide to go nuclear with so long to go? Literally, in the case of deciding that this is the right time to talk about Trident, and figuratively in allowing Michael Fallon to launch an extraordinarily personal and nasty attack against Ed Miliband while discussing the Tory nuclear policy? Beyond the sheer nastiness of the attack, it was based on some rather shoddy logic.

It’s hard to work out where to start with the faults in the argument. Is it that Miliband standing in the Labour leadership election was a ‘shabby manoeuvre’, in which case should every Tory candidate be apologising to their rivals for doing it? Is it the whole ‘he stabbed his brother in the back’ nonsense, as though David had some sort of divine right to be party leader? Or is that the supposedly weak and chaotic Miliband the Tories have been telling us about for years is actually some secretly ruthless Macchiavellian (Mandelsonian, even) evil genius of politics? And in terms of the policy itself, are they suggesting that they would oppose a Labour-led government in a vote on replacing Trident? Because that’s what it would take to give SNP MPs, no matter how many of them there are, a decisive say on the issue.

There was a clear hitting of the ‘oh God, we’re not going to get a majority’ panic button by the Tories about a week before the last election when things went a bit crazy, but this is with four weeks to go? Was their plan based on the idea that Miliband would suddenly disintegrate under the pressure – in exactly the way he hasn’t for the past five years – and then they’d coast to the majority they believe is theirs by right? They’ve known this election was coming, at this time, for years but it really does feel like they’ve constantly put off coming up with a strategy for it in the hope that someone will come up at the last minute to mean they don’t have to. Now the deadline for submitting is here, and they’re pulling the political equivalent of an all-night essay writing session, with all the shoddy research and scant respect for facts you’d expect.

However, in a surprise development, Fallon managed to avoid winning the title of nastiest campaign move of the day. First, there was a challenge from his Tory colleague Nick Boles, implying that Miliband was Vladimir Putin’s choice for Prime Minister, but even that was trumped by George ‘still a thing’ Galloway. Yes, the sole MP for the Courage, Strength and Indefatigability Respect Party, proved there were no campaigning depths off limits to him by bickering over the age at which his Labour opponent was forced into marriage. When you find yourself in a position where you don’t deny getting someone to impersonate someone’s dead father in order to ‘prove’ they were slightly older than thought while being married against their will, there may not be much left of the barrel for you to scrape. But again, there are still four weeks to go, and never underestimate Galloway’s ability to sink even lower into the gutter.

Nominations are now closed, so hopefully by the time I get to do a post tomorrow we’ll have an idea of how many candidates there are across the country, and just how many strange new parties have appeared for the election. Lambeth are quick of the mark in publishing their lists of candidates, and Vauxhall constituency is straight into the contest for most candidates in a seat with 10. Last time, we managed nine in Colchester, but there are only six confirmed here so far – are we going to be higher or lower this time?

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Two bits of news about the business of Government that have caught my attention over the last few days.

The quad has become the sextet – As we’ve come to see over the past couple of years, a lot of the real decisions about the direction of the Government are being taken by the ‘quad’: David Cameron, George Osbourne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. That’s now expanded include David Laws and Oliver Letwin.
Philip Hammond is pushing on with Trident replacement contracts – The ‘main gate’ decision isn’t meant to be taken until 2016, but work is still being undertaken as though that’s already been decided. Institutional inertia, anyone?

I’ve linked these stories because they both highlight something important about this government that I don’t see being talked about much, possibly because we’ve all internalized the belief that no one wants to talk about process stories. I’m usually inclined to agree, but the problem can be to assume that process and policy aren’t strongly linkes. Sure, in Government they can’t exist without each other, but we must not forget that the way the process is structured can effect the policy as it works through the system. (I had a whole lot of analogies here, none of which worked)

Nick Harvey’s removal from the MoD without a Liberal Democrat replacement coming in for him has already sparked off lots of discussion about the Trident review and replacement and today’s announcement is just a small part of that. The key point here, though, is that there’s now no longer someone like Nick Harvey fighting that corner in the MoD day to day. Clegg and Alexander are supposedly overseeing the issue, but that’s different from actually having a minister in there – overseers tend to only get to see what the process spits out at the end, when what’s needed here is someone to influence it a long time before final reports are made.

This is why I think the recent reshuffle is going to cause lots of issues further down the line as the implications of it are felt. As well as Liberal Democrats leaving certain areas behind, it also saw the Tories shift rightwards, and the additions to the quad make it look unlikely that it’s going to provide any brake to that tendency. The quad determines what does and doesn’t get done in government, what each party is willing to trade off with the other and for what. The Liberal Democrat members of it have an important job to do in not just keeping government running smoothly, but in understanding and representing what the party will and will not accept. Unfortunately, adding David Laws to it doesn’t instil much confidence in me that the party’s full range of views are going to be reflected. Adding in another member of the party ‘right’, someone ideologically closer to the Tories than many others in the party, seems to me to be a strategic error.

If we’re really seeking to act as a handbrake on the Tories, why is the centre of political gravity on the quad so far to the right? The quad might just be a process within government, but the decisions it makes – explicitly or implicitly – have an ideological effect on what policies get pushed through the system. Yet again, too much is being conceded to the Tories before proper discussions even start, and we know where that’s led us before.

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