If the Liberal Democrats lose most or all of their MEPs in next week’s European elections, and endure a similar thrashing in the locals, there will be calls from some in the party for Nick Clegg to be replaced as leader and for the party to withdraw from the coalition. Lord Oakeshott, a close ally of Vince Cable, who has previously demanded Clegg’s departure, recently said that the Lib Dems should leave government “straight after” the results.
But when I spoke to party president Tim Farron, one of the frontrunners to lead the Lib Dems after Clegg, he told me that “neither of those are even on the table”. On Clegg, he said: “He’s very, very popular within the party, he’s got very strong support at all levels and I think there’s a great sense, in a very Paddy Ashdown-esque way, that Nick has done difficult things that were right.
“Paddy led the party for 12 years and could have gone on for longer…It was largely because of the great sense that he spoke to the heart of the party, he stood up for difficult issues, sometimes unpopular but always principled, and he did the right thing. There’s a great sense that the same is said of Nick, not just on Europe but on civil liberties issues and, indeed, going into government at all. It would have been far easier and safer for him to have wimped out and let there be a Tory minority adminstration. Instead, he did what was difficult for him and the party and went in, and people really admire that and respect that, and support that.”
The reference to Ashdown is apposite. Sources point to Clegg’s appointment of his mentor 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.
The Lib Dem leader’s team have also been carefully managing expectations, refusing to rule out the possibility of a wipeout in the Euros and ensuring that all sides are brought into the tent.
On the coalition, Farron said: “We’ve battled for four years through some incredibly difficult times for the party and the country and it now very strongly appears that the tough and controversial decisions that we took over that last four years are now paying off. It would be pretty barmy to, just at the moment that it’s working, want to somehow disown what we’ve done both in terms of the man who inspires us and leads us and our membership of the coalition.
“I don’t think either of those things will be or should be in question at all. I love Matthew Oakeshott, I think he’s a very, very good person and if he didn’t exist you’d have to invent him. But at the same time, I regularly and to his face disagree with him on both of these issues.”
Despite what will almost certainly be one of the worst nights the Lib Dems have ever endured, with the party’s councillor base likely to fall below 2,000 for the first time since its creation, the odds are on Clegg remaining as leader. This is not least because none of the potential replacements – Farron, Danny Alexander, Vince Cable, Jeremy Browne – have any desire to lead the party into the toughest general election it has faced for years. Far better to begin the hard work of reconstruction at a later date.