Nick Clegg’s leadership is questioned by MPs as some Liberal Democrat candidates urge him to quit over dismal election results, although the party chairman urges the party “not to turn in” on itself.
The deputy prime minister has insisted he is staying despite the party losing more than 250 councillors in local elections.
An internal “post-mortem” of the poor night at the polls – which saw the party almost or entirely wiped out in some former strongholds – “has to include a truly open, mature and balanced look at our whole strategy, including the leadership issue,” the Southport MP told The Sunday Times.
“Although I admire enormously Nick’s bravery, it does not follow that because the captain should go down with the ship that the ship has to go down with the captain,” he said.
Although I admire enormously Nick’s bravery, it does not follow that because the captain should go down with the ship, that the ship has to go down with the captain. Southport MP John Pugh
But Liberal Democrat chairman Tim Farron has warned it would be “absolutely foolish” for the party to “turn in” on itself. Mr Farron said he had “deep sympathy” with members who had lost seats, but the Westmorland and Lonsdale MP told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that he disagreed with calls among the party to oust its leader.
He said “tough decisions” had been taken in 2010 and it would be wrong to change course now just when they were being vindicated on things like the economic recovery.
Colleague Adrian Sanders, who represents Torbay, said: “The problem is the messenger, very few people say it’s the message.”
In Thursday’s elections, the Tories took charge of Kingston Council – the back yard of Energy Secretary Ed Davey – and the Lib Dems lost control in Portsmouth following gains by Ukip.
As the scale of the losses became clear, Mr Clegg said he would “absolutely not” resign, and insisted the Lib Dems were still succeeding where they focused on their achievements in coalition.
He blamed a wider “anti-politics mood” but his party has seen its opinion poll ratings at consistently low levels since joining the Conservative-led coalition.
Read more: local elections 2014 - the key questions
Two would-be MPs are among more than 250 people who have signed up to the online LibDems4Change campaign which has published an open letter calling on Mr Clegg to step down.
Jackie Porter, who is set to fight the Tory-held target seat of Winchester in next May’s general election, said the party was “not going forward with a clear strategy”.
The county councillor said the party’s achievements were overshadowed because Mr Clegg “allowed himself to be portrayed as just another pea out of the same pod”as David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
To win back support, the party needed to demonstrate it was different, she said. She declined to say who she would like to see take Mr Clegg’s place.
The open letter says voters have delivered a “stark message about the party’s performance and direction”.
“We consider it vital that at the 2015 general election the party should be led by someone who will receive a fair hearing about our achievements and ambitions for the future,” it says.
“It is clear to us that this person is not you, as the loss of so many of our hard-working councillors highlights. You have fulfilled a range of objectives in government, but we now believe that progress will be best achieved under a new leader. We therefore ask that you stand down, allowing the membership to select your successor this summer.”
If Mr Clegg refuses to quit, a leadership contest would be triggered if 75 local party associations formally demanded one, or if a majority of the parliamentary party approved a no-confidence motion.