When Nick Clegg challenged Nigel Farage to a debate on EU membership, many Lib Dems were hopeful that his stand would revive their party’s fortunes. But Clegg’s drubbing at the hands of the UKIP leader last week has prompted a new bout of despondency. “It’s reminded us of just how unpopular he is,” one MP tells me. With no improvement in the party’s European election poll ratings, leaving open the danger that it could lose all 11 of its MEPs next month, murmurs of a leadership challenge to Clegg have begun. At the weekend the Sunday Times reported that “Peers, MPs and party activists have delivered a stark message to Clegg that unless the party delivers respectable results, he will have to step aside.”
While it’s figures from the left of the party who are quoted in the piece (with one anonymous peer clearly identifiable as Lord Oakeshott), a Lib Dem source suggests an alternative origin for the story. “This is Danny’s team jockeying,” he tells me.
In recent months, the leadership ambitions of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury have become increasingly obvious. He has strengthened his team with the appointment of Peter Carroll, the founder of the successful Fair Fuel campaign, as his special adviser, and Graeme Littlejohn as his head of office in Inverness, and, a source notes, “has been popping up in places like the Mirror and chatting much more to MPs”. The man frequently mocked as “Beaker” has also ditched his glasses, lost some weight and seemingly dyed his hair.
With Alexander set to replace Vince Cable as the Liberal Democrats’ economics spokesman at the general election, representing the party in the chancellors’ debate, he is positioning himself as the “continuity candidate” in a future leadership contest (assuming he retains his seat). “Ed Davey’s just not up to it,” one Lib Dem said. As for Alexander, I was told: “He looks like a faithful paladin of Clegg but he’s ambitious”.
For now, however, Clegg’s position looks secure. Ahead of next month’s elections, the Lib Dem leader’s team are carefully managing expectations. “They’re preparing for a wipeout and trying to bring everyone into the tent,” I’m told. Sources point to Clegg’s “canny” appointment of his mentor Paddy Ashdown as general election campaign chair as one reason for his continued survival. “Every time there’s a crisis, Paddy’s on the news channel”, one notes. Just as Peter Mandelson shored up Gordon Brown’s position in times of trouble, so Ashdown serves as Clegg’s political life support machine.
With a much-diminished Vince Cable unprepared to wield the knife, the Lib Dem leader, against expectations, is almost certain to be in place on 7 May 2015.