Nick Clegg’s future
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Liberal Democrats UK news every morning.
Whatever his troubles, David Cameron must feel blessed when he looks at Nick Clegg, the leader of a party stalked by the prospect of extinction. The Liberal Democrats are mired at about 10 per cent in the polls. Efforts to contrast themselves with the Conservatives have failed to win back left-leaning voters. One pollster suggests that Britain’s third party could lose all but 10 of its 57 MPs at the next election, due in 2015.
Menaced by this existential threat, Lib Dems could be forgiven for dispatching their leader. His personal ratings seem unrecoverably dire. A more leftwing replacement – Vince Cable, say – might lure voters back from Labour, or at least work towards a Lib-Lab coalition. He might also be a wilier operator than Mr Clegg, who has mishandled some Lib Dem shibboleths, namely the alternative vote and House of Lords reform, and failed to achieve either.
But Lib Dems should not fool themselves. A change of leader anytime soon would disrupt and perhaps bring down the coalition. This would be bad for their party, which could do without a sudden election, and potentially ruinous for the country, which cannot afford instability in full view of wary financial markets. Even if the Lib Dems wait for a more opportune moment to replace Mr Clegg, such as the run-up to the next election, they should not assume that the grass will be any greener. Mr Cable – or Tim Farron, or Simon Hughes, or any other mooted candidate – will find leadership a rather tougher business than grumbling volubly from the sidelines.
Amid the scorn directed at Mr Clegg from all sides, his virtues are easily forgotten. He did the right thing in 2010 by entering the coalition: a minority Tory government would not have lasted and a coalition with Labour was never mathematically viable. For all his squabbles with his governing partners, he has never wavered on the central issue of deficit reduction. Lib Dems who fret at their party’s supposed lack of influence in government should remember that Mr Clegg has blocked countless Tory policies (including, sadly, some good ones) and secured a dramatic rise in the income tax threshold to £10,000 by 2015.
Part of his problem dates back to the formation of the government. Had he been given a department to run, rather than the deputy premiership on its own, he could point to tangible achievements. As it is, his successes take place behind closed doors. This might be a problem the government can address in its coming reshuffle, although finding a cabinet portfolio to give Mr Clegg that would not rankle with Tories is tricky work.
Whichever jobs change hands in the near future, the leadership of the Lib Dems should not be among them.
Get alerts on Liberal Democrats UK when a new story is published