My Total Politics column: The pragmatists have it – why Clegg will cling on

by Stephen Tall on May 26, 2014

Thursday, 22nd May, was the Lib Dems’ own Black Thursday. Over the following four long, agonising days, the party watched as first the local and then the European election results brutally revealed the cost of entering into coalition with the Conservatives.

Had it been only the local elections which disappointed, the party might have shrugged it off as the usual mixed bag: painful losses offset by successful defences in held and target seats. But while losing one election might be considered a misfortune, losing two look like carelessness. Though the Lib Dems avoided the ultimate humiliation of being wiped off the European electoral map – one of the party’s 11 MEPs survived – the party trailed in fifth place behind the Greens, its 7% share of the vote half that won five years earlier.

Even before this humiliation was officially declared, some Lib Dem activists were calling for Nick Clegg’s head. An open letter was published by a group called #LibDems4Change urging fellow party members to elect a new leader “who will get a fair hearing from voters about Liberal Democrat achievements and ambitions for the future”. Its organisers are, in the main, drawn from the social liberal wing of the party, aggrieved at what they see as its right-leaning, ‘Orange Book’ direction under Nick Clegg: austerity economics, the NHS bill, ‘secret courts’ and the bedroom tax are chief among their grievances.

The hundreds who signed included a handful of parliamentary candidates. But current Lib Dem MPs were more restrained. Even the most vocally critical of the awkward squad stopped short of inciting regicide, with Southport’s John Pugh confining himself to the more coded suggestion that the party “calmly take a root-and-branch look at our current strategy, including how and by whom it is presented”.

For many of the rebels, business secretary Vince Cable remains the great hope: a Keynesian social liberal who has never troubled to hide his discomfort at serving in a Conservative-dominated cabinet. Few doubt he’d love the chance to wear the crown. More doubtful is his desire to wield the dagger. Indeed, he squashed speculation about his own intentions, issuing a statement declaring (somewhat optimistically) “There is no leadership issue”. Meanwhile the other king across the water, party president Tim Farron, appealed for unity: “it would be absolutely foolish for us as a party to turn in on ourselves”.

Clegg is not short of loyalists among the membership. Many sprung to his defence, arguing it would be folly to ditch the leader who had given the party its first post-war taste of national power. Defeated councillor David Schnitz took to LibDemVoice to assert “with all the force of which I am capable that Nick must stay”. International development minister Lynne Featherstone, campaign manager for Chris Huhne when he fought Clegg for the leadership and whose London seat would likely be lost if these election results were repeated, praised him to the hilt: “He is brave and capable, and taking us into government has achieved remarkable progress.”

The truth is that neither the rebels nor the loyalists can offer a convincing argument of how, respectively, either ditching Clegg or sticking by him will improve Lib Dem chances in May 2015.

#LibDems4Change pin their hopes on the belief that Clegg’s departure, and his replacement by a more socially liberal leader, will allow the party to woo back those Lib Dems who’ve deserted the party for Labour since the Coalition was formed. Yet polls show neither Cable nor Farron would make much difference to Lib Dems popularity – and of course the moment either became leader they would be subject to the same attacks which have been relentlessly (and damagingly) levelled against Clegg these past four years.

Clegg loyalists pin their hopes on the belief that their man will, over the next 11 months, earn belated recognition from the voters for his stoic resilience. Yet the 22 May elections give precious little indication this will happen. And his debate defeat at the hands of Nigel Farage showed that even Clegg’s much-vaunted communication skills may count for nothing if the voters don’t want to listen to him any more.

Between the rebels and the loyalists lie the rest of us: the pragmatists. We fear, sadly, that Nick Clegg’s lustre is too tarnished to be of much assistance to the party at the next election. Yet we don’t buy the easy claim that swapping him for a Cable or a Farron will magically transform Lib Dem prospects. The status quo will, therefore, win by default. As Rab Butler half-heartedly said of Anthony Eden, he’s the best leader we have got.

And, of course, the big story of these elections was Ukip’s continuing electoral success – the chief outcome of which is to make it far less likely that either Labour or the Conservatives can win an outright majority in May 2015. A second hung parliament beckons. If the Lib Dems can retain around 40 seats (as suggested by the local election results) Clegg will once again be Kingmaker. What a comeback that would be. No wonder he’s clinging on.