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29 May 2014

Will Clegg suffer death by a thousand cuts?

The Lib Dem leader has avoided a palace coup but party activists are circling. 

By George Eaton

If Nick Clegg’s position as Lib Dem leader is more secure than it was at the start of the week (largely thanks to the ineptitude of his enemies), it is also clear that he is not safe yet. While he has the support of a majority of his party’s MPs (who have the power to trigger a leadership election through a vote of no confidence), he could still face a contest if at least 75 constituency associations and student groups demand one.

It is significant, then, that Clegg is coming under increased activist pressure. In a letter to today’s Times, the well-organised Social Liberal Forum writes that “It’s right that the party re-examines its strategy, how we deliver it, and what we will be offering the electorate at the general election in 2015 — and it is right that this debate should include who leads the party. The membership will hold the key to this re-examination, and we acknowledge that views differ on how to approach these issues within the party — as they do within the Social Liberal Forum (SLF).”

But while it’s unsurprising to see the left-leaning SLF challenge Clegg’s leadership (its co-chair Naomi Smith is an aide to Lord Oakeshott), it’s the intervention of Liberal Democrat Voice editor Stephen Tall that will most trouble the party’s high command. The usually loyal Tall, who has edited the activist website since 2007, argues persuasively that Clegg should resign on the grounds that the party “needs a leader who can negotiate the best deal possible to advance the Lib Dem manifesto”. 

He writes: “I don’t think Nick will be able to secure a Coalition deal with the Conservatives that Lib Dem members will be prepared to sign up to: there is too much suspicion lingering from the current deal. Nor do I think Nick will be able to do a deal with Labour that he will be able credibly to communicate to the voters as anything other than a complete about-turn on the previous five years of cohabitation with the Tories.

“In short, Nick is one of the impediments (not the only one, but a not insignificant one) to the Lib Dems being free to negotiate a second Coalition if that’s the hand we’re dealt.”

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He adds that Clegg could remain as Deputy Prime Minister until May 2015, allowing the new party leader to “present the party’s manifesto unencumbered by the compromises of coalition.” 

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It’s the kind of pragmatic argument that could quickly gain ground among party members (39 per cent of whom currently want Clegg to resign). While the Lib Dem leader has avoided a palace coup, the danger is that he now suffers death by a thousand cuts at the hands of his activists.