For Nick Clegg to stay, the Lib Dems need to “confound expectations”. What does that mean?

by Stephen Tall on February 10, 2015

Nick-CleggWhat is the ‘Clegg threshold’? That’s a question I intended to touch on in my ConHome column today – looking at the prospect of a Lib-Con Coalition 2.0 – but didn’t manage to fit it in.

Though I think it’s likely Nick Clegg will depart soon after the 7th May election, it’s by no means certain.

Assuming he holds his Sheffield Hallam seat (and I still do make that assumption) and assuming he still has the appetite (and I’m told he does) then it will hinge on whether the Lib Dem result “confounds expectations”. But what does that mean?

Expectations among Lib Dems have taken a nose-dive since the Coalition was formed. Once, dipping below 50 seats would have been seen as disastrous. Today, it would seem a bloody miracle if it were that good.

This can be seen in the Coalition Tracker questions I’ve asked in LibDemVoice’s members’ surveys:

>> In July 2010, 23% thought the Coalition would be “good for the Lib Dems’ electoral prospects at the next general election” – 17% thought it would make no difference. Less than half, 43%, said it would be bad.
>> Even in March 2013, when I first asked “How many Lib Dem MPs do you think will be elected at the next general election (expected in May 2015)?”, 28% of Lib Dem members reckoned the party would retain at least 50 MPs. Just 13% thought the party would dip below 30. This was, of course, in the immediate afterglow of the Eastliegh by-election victory.
>> Last time I asked that question, in November 2014, just 3% of party members expected Lib Dems to top 50 seats; 37% reckoned we’d collapse below 30. (The plurality, 43%, estimated 30-40 seats, which remains my prediction.)

Indeed, so low have expectations now sunk, at least among the commentariat, that an argument could be made they’ve been confounded if the Lib Dems keep our heads above the 30-seat mark. My gut instinct suggests the following thresholds:

Below 30 seats – Nick Clegg would quit (probably immediately, though he may hold on long enough for the party to sort out a mechanism for replacing him as leader).
Above 45 seats – this would be seen as a vindication of his leadership and Nick would almost certainly stay on.

However, that leaves a wide grey area – 30-45 seats – where things are less certain. And of course even that grey area is even more blurred at the edges… 30 MPs is psychologically preferable to 29, but almost as disastrous; and 44 seats would be almost as colossal a relief as 45.

Another factor would be the performance of the other parties. If the Lib Dems finish on 32 MPs and the numbers for another coalition, whether with Tories or Labour, just don’t stack up, it’s hard to see Nick staying on as leader of the third(?) party in opposition.

One final factor… Tim Farron is the undoubted favourite to succeed Nick as leader. But other MPs (most likely Norman Lamb, possibly Ed Davey or Alistair Carmichael) who fancy a tilt will want to have some time to be able to mount an effective challenge, and will want Nick to delay stepping down as long as possible.

My fellow Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack is fond of highlighting the fact that ‘Leaderless parties don’t make for good partners in hung Parliaments’:

If any party wants to make a deal with another but also insists on the leader of that other party going, they’ll have ended up defeating themselves – because without the other party having a leader, there won’t be a deal.

He’s absolutely right. But the extension of his logic points to another, very different, conclusion: there also won’t be a deal if there’s internal uncertainty about the party leader’s future. After all, if I were in Labour/Tory shoes, I would want to make sure I was signing a deal with the decision-maker who can make the coalition stick, not with a “here today and, if I may say so, gone tomorrow” leader.

That could leave the Lib Dems with a tricky ‘hung parliament’ dilemma after May if we end up in the grey area.