29 May 2014

Nick Clegg’s bleak outlook

It feels like Nick Clegg is not about to be felled by his party. But he’s wounded by this week, and the prospects are as horrible as the weather outside in Westminster.

The constituency association rebellion is a cumbersome business and not yet showing signs of momentum. You need to give two weeks’ notice of a meeting. The Cambridge party meeting isn’t until 13 June. The number of associations planning to hold meetings is barely in double figures. Under the rules, the rebels need 75 associations to pass motions against the leadership to trigger a contest. In reality, it probably wouldn’t need that many to start to tumble the walls.

Britain's Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, delivers a speech on international development, in London

But where there’s a sitting MP backing Nick Clegg, like Julian Huppert in Cambridge, you can see how he might swing things the leader’s way. Elsewhere, like Winchester, where the parliamentary candidate wants a new leader, the vote could go the other way.

The rules allow Lib Dem activists to call a special conference if 200 party representatives call for one. There’s been speculation that could become a proxy for a leadership challenge. But big cheese committees of the party get to decide when such a “special conference” should meet. They might decide if they were underwhelmed by the support levels, and mindful of the party coffers or simply loyal to the leader, that it should meet exactly the same time as the autumn conference, thereby undermining the activists’ efforts.

MPs, as Lord Oakeshott has complained, haven’t delivered on what plotters thought were pledges or understandings that they would rise up, though some are being remarkably quiet in public.

One former MP tells me he thinks Nick Clegg’s last year in the run-up to the general election will be peppered with attempts on his political life. The former MP said it all had strong echoes of Gordon Brown‘s last year, when there was a powerful sense of inevitable doom around the Labour party. He recommended Nick Clegg’s team might want to look at Damian McBride‘s Power Trip, and especially the chapter entitled Going to the Mattresses.

Another prominent activist said he didn’t think it would happen like that, as Lib Dems were more locally focused than Labour types and would quite soon buckle down to local campaigns and activity.

Others in the party talk of how activists will now feel emboldened to try to take on the leadership’s line on austerity policy and cuts in the summer and in the run-up to the party conference in October.  They may also try to tie the leadership’s hands on coalition, leaning the party towards Labour, trying to rule out another period of coalition with the Tories.

The focus right now is inevitably on how Vince Cable is wounded by this botched coup. But Nick Clegg is wounded too. His MPs might feel the need to challenge Lib Dem coalition policy lines more to protect their own backs.

And now Nick Clegg has the added complication of dealing with Lord Rennard. The apology to the women making allegations of harassment against him doesn’t neatly dispose of this matter because at least one is saying the apology is grounds for Nick Clegg to expel the former head of campaigns from the party. That would risk starting a fire in another part of the Lib Dem house when Nick Clegg and his team are dampening down quite a few elsewhere.

Many peers in the party are fiercely loyal to Lord Rennard. They admire his service to the party and think there’s something illiberal about what they see as kangaroo court media judgements. Any attempt to expel him would carry risks for Nick Clegg when he really needs no more of them. Not taking any action risks continuing attacks from women members of the party, saying the leader has ducked his responsibilities.

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