Lib Dem MP on post-22 May leadership speculation: “Ashdown would cut my balls off if I criticised Clegg”

by Stephen Tall on May 18, 2014

Paddy Ashdown talks on "The global power shift" in Brussels March 1st 2012 -  Some rights reserved by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE Lib Dems are braced for a tricky week. This Thursday will see the first UK-wide election since 2010, with voters choosing who represents them in the European Parliament. Many voters across England will also get to decide who runs their local council.

Votes for the local elections will be counted on that night and throughout Friday. If this year follows the pattern of the previous three years, the Lib Dems could be expected – as I wrote here a few weeks ago – to lose at least 300 seats, some 40% of those the party is defending. This would reduce the party’s councillor base to the levels last seen in the days of the Alliance.

So the news on Friday and Saturday is unlikely to be great fro the party. Then comes the European election result, declared on Sunday. Lib Dems do not traditionally fare well in these elections. In 2009, we scored 13.7% of the vote at a time when we were averaging 18% in the polls for the general election. Today we’re averaging c.10% in the opinion polls nationally, so it seems likely we’ll end up in single digits in the Euros. That’s where the current Euro opinion polls peg us, neck-and-neck with the Greens, and well behind the Tories, Labour and Ukip. There is clearly some expectations management from Lib Dem HQ, setting a low bar it’s hoped we can clear – I don’t actually think the party’s MEPs will be wiped out entirely, though it’s certainly not impossible.

From Friday to Monday, then, the news for the Lib Dems is likely to be grim. The question is: how will the party react?

So far this parliament, Lib Dem MPs have been remarkably loyal to the Lib Dem leader. There has scarcely been a murmur of dissent, nor any defection threats. Can that hold for a fourth successive set of elections where Lib Dem representatives are scythed down as punishment for the party’s involvement in the Coalition? Today’s Sunday Times has an interesting account of the behind-the-scenes machinations:

“There is more open talk [among MPs] than ever before,” said a senior party source. “They are all gaming out [scenarios] and not just doing it in hushed corners. They are doing it in front of one another now.” … The plotting comes as Clegg’s allies, including the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, seek to shore up the party.

Ashdown, who has been put in charge of the general election campaign, has been warning Clegg’s critics that they will have to answer to him personally if they publicly criticise their leader after this week’s poll results. One of those warned said: “Paddy said he would cut my balls off if I criticised Clegg. I’d be more concerned for my cojones if the threat had come from Miriam [Clegg’s wife].”

Ashdown, a former special forces officer, said the threat had been “a metaphor” but added: “I will be tough on people who make life difficult for the party.” He called on party colleagues to “hold their nerve”.

The report outlines two alternatives. Either Clegg is replaced by Danny Alexander or by Vince Cable as both party leader and Deputy Prime Minister, or he continues as DPM but is replaced as party leader. I find the first option implausible. It relies on Vince and Danny’s colleagues being happy to stand by while they contest the election; it relies on the party membership voting in the way MPs want; it relies on the public not being further turned off by the party at war with itself.

The second option is plausible. Indeed I wrote about it in my most recent Total Politics column:

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.

I labelled it a fantasy scenario for this reason: it would need Nick Clegg to voluntarily decide to stand down as party leader while continuing as DPM. (Any attempt at defenestration will be likely to blow up in the party’s face.) And I cannot see Clegg as a quitter. Unless, that is, Paddy Ashdown tells him it’s the best thing both for him and his party. I wonder if any Lib Dem MPs are considering making the suggestion to him?

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.