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.

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Martin Sorrell: I support a second EU referendum

If the economy is not in great shape after two years, public opinion on Brexit could yet shift, says the WPP head.

On Labour’s weakness, if you take the market economy analogy, if you don’t have vigorous competitors you have a monopoly. That’s not good for prices and certainly not for competition. It breeds inefficiency, apathy, complacency, even arrogance. That applies to politics too.

A new party? Maybe, but Tom Friedman has a view that parties have outlived their purpose and with the changes that have taken place through globalisation, and will do through automation, what’s necessary is for parties not to realign but for new organisations and new structures to be developed.

Britain leaving the EU with no deal is a strong possibility. A lot of observers believe that will be the case, that it’s too complex a thing to work out within two years. To extend it beyond two years you need 27 states to approve.

The other thing one has to bear in mind is what’s going to happen to the EU over the next two years. There’s the French event to come, the German event and the possibility of an Italian event: an election or a referendum. If Le Pen was to win or if Merkel couldn’t form a government or if the Renzi and Berlusconi coalition lost out to Cinque Stelle, it might be a very different story. I think the EU could absorb a Portuguese exit or a Greek exit, or maybe even both of them exiting, I don’t think either the euro or the EU could withstand an Italian exit, which if Cinque Stelle was in control you might well see.

Whatever you think the long-term result would be, and I think the UK would grow faster inside than outside, even if Britain were to be faster outside, to get to that point is going to take a long time. The odds are there will be a period of disruption over the next two years and beyond. If we have a hard exit, which I think is the most likely outcome, it could be quite unpleasant in the short to medium term.

Personally, I do support a second referendum. Richard Branson says so, Tony Blair says so. I think the odds are diminishing all the time and with the triggering of Article 50 it will take another lurch down. But if things don’t get well over the two years, if the economy is not in great shape, maybe there will be a Brexit check at the end.

Martin Sorrell is the chairman and chief executive of WPP.

As told to George Eaton.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition