Today’s papers are full of speculation about Nick Clegg’s leadership prompted by a handful of party members — inevitably labelled ‘senior’ — calling on Nick to go, such as Lib Dem peer Lord Smith of Clifton, with Torbay MP Adrian Sanders urging Nick to get better advice to avoid “bumbling along”. Here are the three thoughts on the issue which strike me (before I head off to the Olympic stadium for tonight’s Paralympic athletics action)…
1) I’m more surprised by how few people are calling for Nick Clegg to go
It’s not especially surprising there’s some discontent among members. The party is currently polling between 10-15%. The economy is still in the doldrums. The Coalition looks fractious and shapeless. In the circumstances it’s more surprising how few Lib Dems are calling for a leadership change, a point also acknowledged in The Spectator this week, Lib Dem MPs are still remarkably loyal to Clegg. And it’s not just senior Lib Dem figures who are sticking with Nick. As our much-quoted recent LibDemVoice poll showed only a small minority (15%) of party members want Nick Clegg to stand down any time soon. The vast majority think he deserves and should be given more time.
2) Now is completely the wrong time to change leader
Much of the current speculation therefore misses the point: Nick Clegg is in no immediate danger of being deposed. That is not the same thing as being safe, however. As Ming Campbell discovered in 2007, your position as leader can be made untenable if it is questioned often enough, and that’s the clear risk for Nick — political death by a thousand swipes. That is why (my personal view) Nick’s critics now need to lay off calling for his head. They may want to make it a self-fulfilling prophesy, but I don’t think that is the mood of most members in the party. Better to focus all our energies in the next year on getting liberal policies enacted in government than to be distracted by what the public will regard as navel-gazing indulgence.
3) If there is ever a right time it needs to be Nick’s decision
There’s little point pretending there are no circumstances in which Nick Clegg might not be Lib Dem leader at the 2015 general election. There’s a quite plausible scenario in which Nick comes to the conclusion himself in 2014 that the party’s best interests would be best served by a new leader: he heads off to a new role in Europe or wherever, Vince steps in to the breach. It could happen. Though as with most long-term political predictions my guess is it won’t happen. But the main point is that such a scenario is dependent on Nick himself reaching this decision much closer to the general election. Of course he will also have to take full account of the views of members. But do we as a party really think defenestrating another leader will make us seem a more trustworthy party in the eyes of the public? That’s a big, big assumption. None of us can yet know what the political climate then might be: it will hinge on the recovery in the economy. And that’s what we now need fully to focus on.