Botched coup against Nick Clegg: Vince Cable ally Lord Oakeshott accused of ‘serious disloyalty’

Business Secretary's former confidant Lord Oakeshott secretly commissioned polling that undermined the Liberal Democrat leader

Vince Cable was forced to disown one of his longest-standing political supporters after he was implicated in orchestrating a coup against Nick Clegg.

The Business Secretary interrupted a trip to China to condemn the “inexcusable and unacceptable” actions of his former confidant Lord Oakeshott, who secretly commissioned polling that undermined the Liberal Democrat leader.

The survey of marginal seats, which was “leaked” to a national newspaper, increased the pressure on Mr Clegg, suggesting that the party would do better if he were replaced by Mr Cable as leader.

Although the poll was completed in early May, it was only released on Tuesday in the aftermath of the party’s disastrous local and European election results. But it badly backfired when its sponsor’s name became public.

Within hours, Mr Cable was forced to release a statement disowning Lord Oakeshott and backing Mr Clegg’s leadership. “Lord Oakeshott’s actions are totally inexcusable and unacceptable,” he said. “I have made it very clear repeatedly that he does not speak or act for me.

“I [have] made absolutely clear there is no leadership issue as far as I’m concerned.”

A senior party source suggested Lord Oakeshott could face disciplinary proceedings if it could be proved that the peer released the poll, while the former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell suggested he should “examine his conscience”. “Attempted destabilisation like this amounts to serious disloyalty,” he said.

Lord Oakeshott has been a close friend of Mr Cable for many years and has made no secret of his desire to see him succeed Mr Clegg. He has previously told friends that he saw a poor performance by the party in this year’s European and local elections as the last chance to remove Mr Clegg before 2015.

Allies of Mr Clegg believe Lord Oakeshott may also have been involved in encouraging Lib Dem supporters to sign a petition calling for the leader to resign. Last night Lord Oakeshott could not be reached for comment.

Nick Clegg plays pool at St Andrew’s Youth Club in Westminster (EPA) Nick Clegg plays pool at St Andrew’s Youth Club in Westminster (EPA)
A Lib Dem source said: “There are not many people in the Liberal Democrats who are rich enough to conduct private polling and yet cheap enough to do it with such a pathetically small sample size. Matthew Oakeshott is both of those things.”

Sean Kemp, a former Downing Street adviser to Mr Clegg, said Lord Oakeshott’s behind-the-scenes spinning was an “open secret” in Lib Dem circles. He added: “If you are trying to build up support among MPs for your mate Vince Cable to become leader of the party, it doesn’t make MPs more disposed to your guy by handing out a story that says they are going to lose their seats. It’s an amazing thing to do to pay out of your own pocket to harm the chances of people who are meant to be your party colleagues.”

A Lib Dem MP, who declined to be named, added: “Matthew is trying to live out his political fantasies vicariously through Vince. He has no regard for the party, no respect for the councillors and activists out there fighting for votes, and no awareness of how damaging this is for Vince. The £15,000 or £20,000 he spent on polling could have got Graham Watson (a Lib Dem MEP who lost his seat) over the line in the South West.”

The Schools minster, David Laws, ridiculed the conclusions of the ICM survey. He said: “Let’s look at the actual data from around the country – not this poll, based on a tiny sample size which clearly, in the case of Nick Clegg’s seat, is absolutely wrong.”

Mr Laws said calls for Mr Clegg’s resignation were coming from the “odd person on the edge of the party” and said the Lib Dems would be naïve to consider removing him.

Vince Cable has condemned Lord Oakeshott (PA) Vince Cable has condemned Lord Oakeshott (PA)
Mr Clegg won a boost on Tuesday night after a poll of party activists found they wanted him to stay on as leader by a margin of 54 per cent to 39 per cent. But the survey by the LibDemVoice website found they were hardly overflowing with praise for their leader. Nearly half (48 per cent) said they were unhappy with his performance and the same proportion described the party’s Euro-election as “the right message, but communicated poorly”.

The most popular choice for his successor, in the event of a vacancy, was the party’s president, Tim Farron.

Stephen Tall, the co-editor of LibDem Voice, said: “These findings suggest Nick Clegg will survive to fight the May 2015 election.”

The party’s former president, Baroness Williams, said it would be crazy to change leader. “In Nick Clegg we have a leader who is amazingly honest, direct and tries to reach to people,” she said. “To get rid of him now would be absolutely absurd. “This is not the right moment to chuck out the leader. We have a year before the next election. That’s plenty of time to get across the Lib Dem message.”

Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader who is running the party 2015 General Election campaign, added: “The vast majority of people in the party who have taken this up have the party’s best interests at heart and are sincere about it. I may profoundly disagree with them but they are entitled to their views. This is a Liberal party and you are entitled to dissent from the leader. Is it helpful? No. But is it part of the Liberal entitlement? Yes. Whether that extends to people who have malice and have been plotting – well that’s a different matter. But the vast majority have the best interests of the party at heart.”

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