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By Peter Hoskin
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Clegg on TV

I’m
not saying that Nick Clegg will resign. Nor that the allegations surrounding
Lord Rennard and his party, as dispiriting as they are, necessarily yet warrant a
resignation. But the past week has certainly raised the prospect of blood
further down the tracks. Mr Clegg’s appearance on LBC radio
this morning
didn’t create the impression of a man who is in control of his
own defence – let alone of his own destiny.   

So
what would happen if he did resign? The first point to make is that it would,
most likely, fray the ties that bind the Coalition together. Relations between
the Tory and Lib Dem leaderships may no longer be all roses and chocolates, as
they were at the start of this Government, but Mr Clegg is still – as I’ve written
before
 – a natural ally for David Cameron. He remains one of the most
effective advocates of coalition itself, and of this Coalition’s policies. He
remains a venomous
critic of Labour
and of their policies. He is an adhesive
helping the whole thing stick together.

When
it comes to other senior Lib Dems, something similar could be said of Danny
Alexander and David Laws. Norman Lamb, too, is someone who might do easy business
with the Tories. And perhaps, to a much lesser extent, there are Ed Davey and
Jo Swinson.


But
would any of these succeed Mr Clegg in a leadership election? There are reasons
to think not. Danny Alexander isn’t obvious party leader material, and, besides,
he is likely to lose his seat at the next election. David Laws’s side-parted,
pin-striped brand of Lib Demmery may be too much for the party membership to
stomach, especially when he has his own past scandal hanging over him. Norman
Lamb is tainted by close association with Mr Clegg, even if he wants the job.
And as for Ed Davey, he could reckon – although this is complete speculation on
my part – that his time is in the future, particularly when the Lib Dems are
plumbing around 10 per cent in opinion polls. Jo Swinson might have the luxury
of making a similar calculation if she emerges
from the Lord Rennard row
relatively unscathed.

Which
really only leaves Vince Cable and Tim Farron – with Mr Cable’s name in bold
and underlined. The Business Secretary may not be especially popular with his
parliamentary colleagues, but he is more or less popular with the public – and
if you’re a Lib Dem MP sweating on holding your seat in 2015, that counts for
quite a lot. And he ticks several other boxes, too: a greying, high-ranking
minister who appeals to his party’s red,
red heart
as much as to its head. He’d be the immediate favourite to ascend
to the throne, should Mr Clegg leave it unoccupied.

Would
the Tory leadership much care if Mr Cable became Lib Dem leader? Here – and this
is the second point that ought to be made – much comes down to timing. If the
Business Secretary took over in the next few weeks, then I suspect panic would
abound. The Coalition was, after all, founded on the idea of stability – and,
although there’s the
possibility
that he might play nicely, Mr Cable does at least threaten that idea. This
is a man who texts
in praise of Ed Miliband
and who sets himself in opposition to Downing
Street with metronomic regularity. The important discussions surrounding the Spending
Review would probably become even more fractious. We’d face the grim prospect
of two years of heightened bickering, bad temper and governmental inertia.  

That
is, of course, if parliamentarians would countenance two years of such a
situation. The introduction of Fixed-term Parliaments means that No.10 cannot
just unilaterally call a general election, but there are mechanisms – neatly
explained by Mark Pack here – by
which Parliament can either force one or just establish a new Government
altogether. As it happens, I doubt both that these mechanisms will be tested and that they will succeed if they are. But the possibility would certainly
arise in the event of an unstable Coalition.

But
what if Cable were to take power much closer to the election? Not only would
this avoid many of the problems mentioned above – the Spending Review would be
written, the slog would not be so long, differentiation would already have
begun in earnest – but the Tory leadership could even regard it as an electoral
boon. As Tim has written
before
, there’s an idea that a Cable leadership would make a Tory majority
more likely, as he may suck left-leaning voters away from Labour and towards
the Lib Dems.

Of
course, that strategy has a majority as its end. What Mr Cable would mean for
Tory hopes in the event of another hung parliament is another matter entirely.

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