Why Clegg could still face a leadership challenge next year

Lib Dem activists suggest that Clegg's position could still come under threat if the party finishes fourth or fifth in next year's European elections.

By any measure, Nick Clegg is having a good conference. He has won major votes on the economy, tuition fees, nuclear power, the 50p tax rate and Trident, confirming the Lib Dems' new status as a party of the "radical centre". These triumphs both reflect and reinforce Clegg's improved standing as leader. The Eastleigh by-election, which convinced the Lib Dems that they aren't facing wipeout in 2015, and the return of economic growth, which the party hopes to earn some credit for, means that talk of a leadership challenge by Vince Cable or anyone else has largely disappeared.

But speak to Lib Dems and you get the impression that Clegg's position isn't completely secure yet. One senior party activist told me that he could still face a challenge if the party performs particularly badly in next year's local and European elections, warning that "we could come fifth behind the Greens". Such a result would mean the loss of most or all of the party's nine MEPs. With a year to go until the general election, there would still be just enough time for the Lib Dems to contemplate a change of leader.

As Lord Oakeshott, one of those who would lead the revolt, noted in his pre-conference interview: "This will be much the biggest test we’ve had on a nationwide basis of our support and our appeal since the general election, so that’s why it will be crunch time. There will be no excuse when everyone has been voting, particularly in important areas like London. I think that’s when everyone will focus on things and I hope we will have a good hard look at our prospects for the election. There will still be time, but next May/June will be the last chance."

One group that hopes the Lib Dems might yet oust Clegg is the Tories. If it they are to win the next election, the Conservatives needs a Lib Dem leader who can win over Labour voters in Tory-Labour marginals. At present, after the defection of around a quarter of 2010 Lib Dem voters to Labour, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats at the next election (Corby was an early warning) -  there are 37 Conservative-Labour marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory.

The belief among the Tories is that a more centre-left figure such as Cable or Tim Farron, both of whom have signalled their availability, could prompt the party's former supporters to return home from Labour. Tim Montgomerie told me last year that "a left-wing replacement" of Clegg in 2014 was "vital to Tory hopes". Fortunately for Ed Miliband, the chances of him facing a new Lib Dem leader in 2015 have fallen further after Clegg's victories this week.

Nick Clegg on stage at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Brexiteers have lost battles but they are still set to win the war

The prospect of the UK avoiding Brexit, or even a “hard” version, remains doubtful. 

Before the general election, the Brexiteers would boast that everything had gone their way. Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 372. The Treasury-forecast recession hadn't occurred. And polls showed the public backing Brexit by a comfortable margin

But since the Conservatives' electoral humbling, the Leavers have been forced to retreat on multiple fronts. After promising in May that the dispute over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be "the fight of the summer", David Davis capitulated on the first day.

The UK will be forced to settle matters such as EU citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill before discussions begin on a future relationship. Having previously insisted that a new trade deal could agreed by 29 March 2019 (Britain's scheduled departure date), the Brexiteers have now conceded that this is, in Liam Fox's words, "optimistic" (translation: deluded). 

That means the transitional arrangement the Leavers once resisted is now regarded as inevitable. After the eradication of the Conservatives' majority, the insistence that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is no longer credible. No deal would mean the immediate return of a hard Northern Irish border (to the consternation of the Tories' partners the DUP) and, in a hung parliament, there are no longer the votes required to pursue a radical deregulatory, free market agenda (for the purpose of undercutting the EU). As importantly for the Conservatives, an apocalyptic exit could pave the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a figure they previously regarded as irretrievably doomed). 

Philip Hammond, emboldened by the humiliation of the Prime Minister who planned to sack him, has today outlined an alternative. After formally departing the EU in 2019, Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and the customs union: the acceptance of free movement, European legal supremacy, continued budget contributions and a prohibition on independent trade deals. Faced with the obstacles described above, even hard Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Michael Gove have recognised that the game is up.

But though they have lost battles, the Leavers are still set to win the war. There is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum (with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats still enfeebled), Hammond has conceded that any transitional arrangement would end by June 2022 (the scheduled date of the next election) and most MPs are prepared to accept single market withdrawal. The prospect of Britain avoiding Brexit, or even a "hard" version, remains doubtful. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.