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.