As my Voice colleague Mary Reid notes, today’s Telegraph was keen to alert readers to the contingency plans drawn up by the Tories to carry on governing in the event that Nick Clegg were defenestrated as party leader.
I assume one of those contingency plans was the laughably blatant attempt by Michael Gove to try and undermine Nick Clegg last month and so distract the media from the Tories’ own ongoing internecine warfare over Europe.
Still, it should be a very exciting next couple of months for we Lib Dems if the Telegraph is to be believed (seven words that kill the credibility of most political stories):
The Conservatives believe this summer is the “moment of peril” for Mr Clegg as any leadership coup is expected in the run-up to this year’s party conferences. Senior Tories predict the Liberal Democrat leader is “safe” until 2015 if he is still in post after this autumn.
If this is the level of Tory intelligence it explains a lot. Two reasons…
First, Nick Clegg isn’t facing an immediate threat. That’s not to say he’s not under pressure. Nor is it to deny there’s a significant chunk of party members who’d be glad if he went. But the serious displeasure of a minority isn’t the stuff of coups. And you’ll note that not one Lib Dem MP has called for him to quit. Sure, Vince Cable stands ready, willing and able to take over should a vacancy arise. But he’s not campaigning for it. And Tim Farron is smart enough to know his time is yet to come, post-2015.
Secondly, there remains a scenario under which Nick might still go — but it’s in the second half of 2014, and under his own steam. The scenario isn’t hard to imagine: the party fares badly in that year’s local and European elections; a top job opens up, whether in the EU or elsewhere; and Nick decides to stand down and let a new leader fight in 2015. A year ago that looked pretty plausible. I think it’s pretty unlikely now. But it isn’t impossible.
In fact, looked at objectively there’s only one party in the Coalition which might lose its leader sooner rather than later. After all, an estimated 10% of Tory MPs have submitted letters of no confidence in David Cameron to the chairman of the 1922 committee. Little more than a dozen extra letters could trigger a leadership contest.
Mr Cameron would, it can only be assumed, survive; but how wounded would he be? And if a plausible figure from the better-off-outer contingent of the Tory right-wing pledged to stand against him would he even survive? It’s by no means certain.
In short, if you were to bet on a leadership vacancy I’d put my money on the Tories ahead of the Lib Dems. Which invites the question: has our leadership drawn up contingency plans in the event that the Tories dump David Cameron?
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.