In a competitive field, last night was the worst the Lib Dems have suffered since entering the coalition. The party lost all but one of its 11 MEPs and finished in fifth place behind the Greens. That Nick Clegg fought a spirited campaign, hailing the Lib Dems as the “party of in” and taking on Nigel Farage in debate, makes the result all the more painful. Those in the party who called in advance for his resignation will feel vindicated.
But my sense is that Clegg is likely to live to fight another day. Lib Dem grandees such as Paddy Ashdown and Ming Campbell, who could have told him that the game was up, have moved swiftly to shore up his position in media interviews this morning. The rebellion is still limited to just two MPs – John Pugh and Adrian Sanders – and just 283 members (0.66 per cent of the membership) have signed the petition calling for him to go.
With Clegg unwilling to fall on his sword, he would have to be forced out, and there are few Lib Dem MPs with an appetite for regicide at this stage of the electoral cycle. Vince Cable, the most plausible caretaker leader, has no intention of wielding the knife and other potential replacements, such as Tim Farron, are wisely biding their time until after the general election. Far better to begin the hard work of reconstruction after May 2015 than to take over a party heading for its worst election result in more than 20 years.
Then there is the fact that for all the Lib Dems’ woes, they have an increasing chance of holding the balance of power in another hung parliament (with their vote holding up well in some Tory-facing areas). So long as Clegg is able to dangle that prize in front of his party, he will have the momentum he requires to stay in the job.