Even if Clegg keeps his seat, most Lib Dems expect him to depart

Minds are turning to the leadership contest to come, with Tim Farron regarded as unassailable. 

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Since the start of the long campaign, the Lib Dems have struggled to be heard. As Labour and the Tories have waged war on each other, and as the smaller parties have continued to flourish, Nick Clegg's party has appeared increasingly irrelevant (despite its potential to hold the balance of power). One MP lamented to me this week: "We're now the sixth most interesting party". 

Today's economic policy launch, with Clegg promising to "cut £38bn less than the Tories and borrow £70bn less than Labour", was a rare opportunity to set the agenda. But the day has been marred by a new Survation/Unite poll showing the Lib Dem leader on course to lose his Sheffield Hallam seat. The survey puts his party on just 22 per cent, with Labour far ahead on 33 per cent (a swing of 24 per cent since 2010). 

There are significant methodological objections to the poll (Anthony Wells looks at them in detail here). Unlike Lord Ashcroft, whose own survey showed Clegg three points ahead, Survation did not ask people to think about their own constituency and did not reallocate "don't knows" based on their past voting record (two adjustments that favour incumbents and have proved reliable in the past). But it is grim for Clegg that any poll shows him behind. Alongside Danny Alexander, whom Ashcroft yesterday revealed is 29 points behind the SNP in his Inverness seat, he could not help looking like a condemned man awaiting the guillotine. 

 

 

But even if Clegg wins his seat, the assumption among most Lib Dems is now that he will depart as leader after the election. As one senior MP told me in my column this week: "Clegg will almost certainly go. The only scenario under which I can see him staying is another coalition with the Conservatives." Even then, the likely scale of the Lib Dems' losses may force him to do what he almost did last year (following the European election debacle) and resign. Few believe he would enter coalition with Labour, regardless of whether Ed Miliband demands his head. 

The likely resignation of Clegg means minds are turning to the leadership contest to come, with Tim Farron's advantage regarded as unassailable. The former party president has been notably cooler than other senior Lib Dems about the prospect of another coaliton, telling me last year: "When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe – and let the other party believe – that there is a point at which you would walk away and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind. That is something we all have to consider." 

Faced with the choice of enduring another punishing term in government, or rebuilding the party from opposition, Farron may well opt for the latter. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.