My Total Politics column: Might Clegg jump before 2015? Here’s how it could work…

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2014

It’s time to talk about Nick Clegg’s future. He’s now in his seventh year as Lib Dem leader, and that anniversary’s famous itch is starting to chafe. Should he stay or should he go now? This question – one previously asked only by the most fervent anti-Cleggites – is beginning to be whispered by loyalists too.

The reasons for these jitters are not hard to pin down. Clegg’s initiative of the ‘Nick v Nigel’ debates was widely praised as a bold move, one that would galvanise Lib Dem support and help define his party as the rallying point for pro-Europeans ahead of the 22nd May elections.

Their first encounter buttressed this view. True, Farage was named the winner in YouGov’s insta-poll, but the reminder of the Clegg of 2010 – charming, persuasive, sensible – enabled him at least to share the honours. Then the second debate struck. This time there was no room for doubt: Farage was the victor over Clegg, whose contrived attempts to emote pro-European passion seemed mainly to comprise a string of laboured jibes against the Ukip leader.

The moment that crystallised Clegg’s defeat – and which left even loyalists with their heads in their hands – was his response to the question, “What will the EU look like in 10 years’ time?” This was an easy, short-pitched delivery begging to be hit for six by a reforming, liberal leader batting for Britain. Yet Clegg’s dispiritingly bland response was: “it will be much the same as it is now”.

Still, Lib Dems took consolation from the fact that they had at least firmly established themselves as ‘The Party of IN’, their antidote-to-Ukip Euro election slogan. Until, that is, the arrival of a poll from ICM – traditionally the firm whose methodology is kindest to the Lib Dems – which showed them tied with the Greens on just 6 per cent, a result which would likely see the party’s 11 MEPs wiped-out of the European Parliament.

The fear that this might be a foretaste of the general election to come sent a shiver down the collective Lib Dem spine. Perhaps, more than a few sadly concluded, it’s not just Clegg’s pro-European message which is irrecoverably unpopular: it’s the messenger himself.

And it’s not just the Euro elections that worry the Lib Dems – local elections are held the same day. It will be the first post-Coalition test in London, home to senior MPs like Ed Davey, Lynne Featherstone and Simon Hughes, and the party is braced for the loss of another few hundred councillors across the country. Indeed, the total number of Lib Dem councillors will very likely plummet below 2,000 for the first time since 1983 – and at least then the SDP/Liberal Alliance was on its way up, not down.

How would the Lib Dems respond to this doomsday scenario: battered in the Euros, bloodied in the locals? Officially Nick Clegg has vowed to stay on until at least 2020: “I fully intend to continue being leader up to, through and beyond the next election, and through the next parliament.” He knows no other answer would satisfy the media. In reality, his fate hinges on two decisions: that of his party this May, and that of the voters a year later.

Clegg will probably be allowed by his party to hang on until 2015. One of the remarkable features of this parliament has been quite how loyal to their leader Lib Dem MPs have been: few noises-off and no defections. Yes, Vince Cable remains (somewhat aloofly) ready to wear the crown, though never, apparently, to wield the dagger. And yes, there have been some signs of jockeying for position – Danny Alexander in particular seems to be on manoeuvres – but this is with a view to a post-2015 leadership contest, not a direct challenge to Clegg’s authority. None of Clegg’s colleagues appear willing to give him the push.

Might Clegg jump? Might he bite on a cyanide pill for the sake of Lib Dem survival? It’s not impossible. Here’s how it could work… Clegg announces that he will resign as party leader but continue as Deputy Prime Minister:

“I have a duty, on behalf of my party and my country, to see through the job that I signed up to,” he would nobly say. “There is much we have achieved in the last four years of which we can be proud. But it is clear that the Lib Dems need to be able to fight the next election as a proudly independent party. I recognise this is best done under a new leader with a fresh mandate.”

This statement would trigger a contest offering the Lib Dems a valuable media spotlight right through to the party conference in October, when Clegg’s successor (almost certainly current party president Tim Farron) is unveiled.

A fantasy, maybe. But for those Lib Dem MPs looking nervously at this May’s results it may seem a far better alternative to the reality that otherwise awaits.