I admire the Liberal Democrats – not for their policies, and still less for the vile campaigning that so often distinguished them in opposition, but for their nerve. The mere act of entering government was always likely to lose them support – from their right-wing end if the partner was Labour, from their left-wing end if it was the Conservatives. The parliamentary arithmetic set up a coalition with the latter, and leftist LibDem voters duly set off to back Ed Miliband (the only substantial electoral gain he has made since winning Labour’s leadership). This is not the end of the party’s problems. UKIP has replaced it as the vehicle of protest. And the Tories are making a pitch for that rightist end of the LibDem vote. We have a centrist leader and are your party’s partners, the argument runs: if you can work with us, you should vote with us. It may not work, but it will undoubtedly be pushed in the blue-yellow marginals.
The LibDem support share has consequently halved, and more: the last three polls recorded by YouGov’s Anthony Wells have shown the party at nine per cent, eight per cent and nine per cent. Last Thursday’s local election results were bad: it lost over 250 councillors, and Kingston, the seat of Ed Davey, a Cabinet Minister and one of its most senior MPs (plus scandal-strewn Portsmouth). Its European election results may be even worse. The party faces the possibility of a wipe-out.
Yet to date the LibDem have plodded on. There has been no split and no panic. Why? Perhaps because the party is used to adversity, and lacks the sense of entitlement that makes the Conservatives so volatile when they don’t win elections or face losing them. Perhaps because the LibDem vote is holding up better in seats that have a yellow MP (and by the way, it held six councils last Thursday). Perhaps because it was better prepared for government – or at least for the fate that often meets small parties when they enter coalition – than outsiders have grasped. Or perhaps because the media has always been disinclined to probe the internal contortions of this relatively minor player. But whatever the reason or combination of them, Nick Clegg’s position has been secure. No senior LibDem local government leader, let alone MP, has suggested that he should quit.
Until today. The Sunday Times (£) reports the following from Adrian Sanders “The problem is the messenger. I have found few people saying it’s the message.” It quotes John Pugh as saying: “It does not follow that because the captain should go down with the ship, that the ship has to go down with the captain.” John Hemmings is less than enthusiastic about Clegg’s leadership in the Independent on Sunday.
The paper claims that “a block of unnamed MPs are poised to demand his resignation, according to party sources, paving the way for the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, a possible “unity candidate”, to take over in a “coronation” before next year’s general election”. There is a petition calling on Clegg to go. Unhappy councillors and candidates are quoted everywhere. The leader is usually the lightning-rod when troubles strike. But the Liberal Democrat leader is a particularly vulnerable one. His performance in the first election debate in 2010 made him for a moment the poster boy of anti-politics. His decision to enter government has transformed him into one for the despised political class. A single decision – the party’s junking of its tuition fees pledge – has become a symbol for an establishment breaks promises, cheats voters, swindles taxpayers, and looks only after itself.
Few outside the Westminster Village will have heard of Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove’s former adviser. But his picture of Clegg, and his behaviour over free school meals, is strikingly like voters’ perception of politicians as a whole: vain, shallow, uninterested in delivery, obsessed with spin – with what Clegg apparently calls “the optics” – and with no understanding of or sympathy for the lives of those they claim to represent.
The LibDems are to hold a “review” of the party’s election performance. Clegg will probably survive it. His party has held together for four years of coalition, and it is unlikely to crumble during the fifth. Nor would a Cable leadership guarantee a LibDem poll revival or even make it likely. After all, he has been sitting in a Conservative-led Cabinet for almost half a decade, and his fingerprints – as left-leaning voters will see it – are on the Government’s bloody axe. But the cracks in the party’s united front will have consequences for David Cameron as well as for Clegg. He wants to keep the Coalition going. And he wants the LibDem vote to hold up, at least in those Labour marginals. It was noticeable that he didn’t go to Kingston to bask in the result: that was left to Grant Shapps. It is true that his best chance of returning to Downing Street is sticking to the path that Lynton Crosby is clearing for him. But it needs to be deepened and widened during the year ahead.
That means setting out more of what a Conservative manifesto would deliver in the next Parliament – more of that on this site later this week – and delivering more Conservative policies during what’s left in this one. That means giving Clegg as little ground as possible. But the fewer concessions he makes, the more difficult Clegg’s position becomes. The more one thinks about it, the more essential an orderly, gradual break-up of the Coalition is seen to be – as we’ve previously argued. The alternative isn’t stability. It’s a disorderly, sudden one.