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Nick Clegg resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats on Friday, saying his party had suffered the worst losses in its history in “a cruel and punishing night”, as it was reduced to only a handful of parliamentary seats.
Mr Clegg, deputy prime minister in the coalition government of the past five years, won his own seat of Sheffield Hallam, with a much reduced majority. But, at a news conference on Friday morning, he announced his departure, saying he had to take responsibility for the party’s devastating losses.
Across Europe, he told supporters, liberalism was “not faring well against the politics of fear”.
Vince Cable had half an hour earlier became the highest profile Lib Dem casualty on a dreadful night for the party, as it paid a steep price at the polls for its decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives.
As Lib Dem after Lib Dem lost their seat, the party was on course for its lowest number of MPs since it was the Liberal party in 1970. Having secured 23 per cent of the vote at the last election, the party shed about two-thirds of its support and won just 7.8 per cent of the national vote this time with almost all seats counted.
A tearful Mr Cable conceded defeat after 18 years in parliament during which he has led the party and, in the past five years, served as business secretary. “This has been a terrible night for our party, but I am absolutely sure we are going to bounce back both locally and nationally,” he said.
Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, began the night saying he would “eat his hat” if the exit poll predicting an electoral collapse for his party was right. By the end of the night he faced an unpalatable breakfast.
Lord Ashdown said the forecast predicting the Lib Dems would collapse from 57 seats in 2010 to just 10 seats in the 2015 general election was “wrong”, but the string of defeats for the party across the country contradicted him.
The sight of Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem MP for Bermondsey since 1982 and former deputy leader of the party, losing to Labour was just one shocking moment of a disastrous night.
Other big names fell through the night, including Danny Alexander, Treasury chief secretary, in Inverness, and Jo Swinson, business minister, in East Dunbartonshire, as well as Ed Davey, energy secretary, in Kingston.
Given the party’s strongholds are often in remote parts of Britain — with late declaration times — the Lib Dems had an agonising wait to find out the full extent of the damage.
The small rump of Lib Dem MPs who survive the election are likely to conclude the party needs to rebuild its fortunes in opposition under a new leader.
Tim Farron, the favourite to succeed Mr Clegg, said his leader had “played a blinder” in the campaign: indeed, the Lib Dem leader was praised for his cheerful demeanour, even if his confidence about his party’s prospects was misplaced.
During the campaign, Mr Clegg paid homage to his party’s “plucky” decision to enter a coalition with Mr Cameron but in the end the Lib Dems paid the traditional price of most parties in such governments.
Mr Cameron had planned to open coalition talks with the Lib Dems almost immediately in the event of a hung parliament, in an attempt to renew the 2010 power-sharing deal.
But that was predicated on the Conservatives needing a substantial number of Lib Dems to give Mr Cameron a Commons majority: by Friday morning, such a deal had become unnecessary.
Lord Steel, the former Lib Dem leader, said before the election that the party needed time to “recharge its values and batteries”.