By Tim Montgomerie
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At the time of the tuition fees row Mr Clegg insisted that he wouldn't apologise. It's a sign of the weakness of his political position that he now feels the need to do so.
Will it work? I'm doubtful. The Tory leadership is doubtful too. Clegg's ratings are even more dismal than his own party's. An increasing number of leading Tories now think that it might be better if the Lib Dems did choose a new leader. One Cabinet minister told me that Clegg is so toxic that he doesn't just contaminate the Lib Dem brand he contaminates the whole Coalition. "Voters see 'the liar' sat next to the Prime Minister in the Commons and it's not good for them and it's not good for us," I was told.
The theory is that someone like Cable as Lib Dem leader will bring two benefits to David Cameron:
- When he's first elected as Lib Dem leader he will need to look statesmanlike. He will want to achieve a few things. It's possible therefore that the current window of Coalitious co-operation might not be the last. There might be a new window after Cable becomes leader when some more business gets done. It is, however, also possible that Cable will make impossible demands and the Coalition will come to a rapid end. Tories think this unlikely, however. He won't want to look like he's simply the anti-Tory leader of the Lib Dems. If he gives this impression the job of Conservative candidates in Lib/Con marginals will become a lot easier.
- The second benefit is a much more likely one. Cable (or Tim Farron) has a chance of winning left-leaning voters back to the Lib Dems. Tory MPs who fear a collapse in the third-placed Lib Dem vote will lose them their seat increasingly see Cable as their best hope. There are, Mark Gettleson has blogged, "33 constituencies where the size of the Conservative majority is less than the number of voters who moved from Labour to the Liberal Democrats since 1997". Cable is probably the best chance of stopping a mass defection back to Labour.
The speculation about Nick Clegg's future is certainly reaching fever pitch ahead of the Liberal Democrat Conference next week. Within an article for the New Statesman that makes the case for Mr Clegg's liberal rather than social democrat vision, Richard Reeves, until recently the Deputy PM's closest adviser, acknowledges that a contest is on the cards. He criticises Lord Oakeshott (a man "who has turned political disloyalty into an art form") and implicitly Vince Cable ("allowed it to be known that, in the time left over from sending texts to Ed Miliband, he still hankers for the top job"). Cable is in regular (and some say constant) contact with Lord Oakeshott. The Lib Dems are a very unhappy family.
PS The parodies of Clegg's video have already begun…