First it was Vince Cable, now Tim Farron has joined the Business Secretary in declaring that he's prepared to stand for the Lib Dem leadership if Nick Clegg is removed. Asked whether he wanted to be leader, the party president told The House magazine: "I certainly wouldn't rule it out" (Cable told the FT: "I don’t exclude it – who knows what might happen in the future"). Farron's answer is significant because when asked this question, a politician traditionally replies: "We've already got a leader and he's doing an excellent job" (or words to that effect). His decision to fuel speculation about his intentions is a sign of just how weak Clegg's position is. As Richard Reeves, the Lib Dem leader's former strategy director, wrote in this week's issue, "For four days and nights the question in the sea air will be: Clegg or no Clegg?"
While it's unlikely that the Lib Dems will seek to force Clegg out in the next year, if the polls continue to show that they'd perform better under Cable, I expect them to remove him before the election. A recent ComRes poll showed that with Cable as leader, support for the Lib Dems would rise to 18%, compared to 14% under Clegg. On a uniform swing, that would leave the party with 39 of its 57 seats, compared with 23 under Clegg. The chance to save 15-20 MPs is likely to prove too good to resist. For the Lib Dems, it represents the difference between a bad result and a terrible one.
Now, in the form of Farron, Cable has an open challenger. The ballots may not have been sent out but, in every other respect, the Lib Dem leadership contest has already begun.