Liberal Democrats. Cuddly. Warm. Rabbit-like, nice little things, you might think. One of their leaders, Paddy Ashdown, used to view them as furry creatures that liked to live in their burrows, but who need to be poked with a sharp stick from time to time.
Well, as the traumas of Nick Clegg have demonstrated this week, these rabbits can bite back. Indeed Matthew (Lord) Oakeshott, a more agreeable and civilised man it would not be possible to find, turned into something of a were-rabbit last week. And the truth is that the Lib Dems are the most vicious and callous when it comes to defenestrating leaders when they get tired of them.
It’s nothing new, as Clegg himself should know very well. After all, as a fresh, though obviously talented MP in 2006 Nick Clegg did his bit to finish off Charles Kennedy. Admittedly Kennedy’s battle with the bottle, as we all know now, went on for rather too long, and his aides protected Kennedy rather too well in the circumstances (supposedly one locked him in his office so he couldn’t make a fool of himself at Prime Minister’s Questions). But when the story was about to break they shoved Charlie out the window. Clegg it was who put his name to a letter demanding Kennedy quit. Clegg then of course threw his support behind Ming Campbell. The alternative was Chris Huhne, then speeding his way to the top of the party, and a man young enough to have stayed there for a decade or more, and thus long enough for Clegg to see his own leadership ambitions thereby disappear.
When, in turn, the time came for Campbell to give way, only a couple of years later, Clegg was ready. Of course Campbell’s age, however unfairly, told against him. When he asked the Prime Minister to consider a rise in the old age pension he was heckled with the memorable line “declare an interest” from the irreverent Tory backbencher Eric Forth. Despite the nicely cut suits and elegant shirts, Ming never regained his composure. (It has to be said, however, that Campbell has managed to outlive Forth by some margin.)
The tradition of treachery goes back much further. As we are all wallowing in the commemorations of the Great War, we may as well recall that a century ago it was another Liberal on the make, Lloyd George, who ganged up with the Tories to get rid of his old chief, H H Asquith. Again, as with Charlie so many years later, “Squiffy’s” languid style, fondness for liquor and general lack of a grip did him no favours. Then again, nor did his minister for Munitions and former Chancellor, David Lloyd George. Lloyd George – “the Goat” to his enemies, of which there were many – is unusual in that he not only betrayed his leader, his wife and his various mistresses, but his party as well, watching it split so that he could remain in office after the end of the Great War as Prime Minister, courtesy of his Tory allies – until Lloyd George was in turn ditched by them.
The long steady death of Liberal England was thus accompanied by a long succession of failed, forgotten figures such as John Simon and Herbert Samuel. Between the two world wars it wasn’t so much that the Libs kept losing their leaders but that their leaders kept mislaying their party. Of some interest in the current context was the formation of the “national government” in 1931. Then as now the Liberals joined the Tories to deal with a massive financial crisis, and soon became prisoners of their much larger Tory partners, duly split and were left in the wilderness for many decades, confined to their Celtic fringe until the 1990s – an uncomfortable lesson from history for today’s generation of Lib Dem leaders.
By the end of all that, Lloyd George ended up leading nothing more substantial than a “party” made up of his daughter Megan and son Gwilym who followed him into the Commons, which at least meant they were a little less likely to stab each other in the back. In due course even the siblings split; Megan went to Labour and Gwilym became a Conservative home secretary.
There are other examples. Roy Jenkins, supposed “Prime Minister designate” of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, was brutally sidelined in the 1983 general election campaign when it became clear that his ratings lagged behind the telegenic David Steel’s. Probably nothing could have saved Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership from destruction at the hands of Norman Scott, and a later appearance at the Old Bailey on a charge of conspiracy to murder (he was acquitted), but he too was told where to get off by Steel and another Liberal in the news lately, one Cyril Smith.
In those days it was the National Front the Libs used to come fourth to, rather than Ukip or the Greens. (Humiliation is nothing new to the centre party). Of all Clegg’s predecessors, only Jo Grimond, David Steel and Paddy Ashdown could be said to have gone when they ran out of political road, after a decade or more at the top.
So there is your potted history of the real “nasty party” of British politics, laced as it is with adultery, Scotch and alleged murder. Perversely the Tories and Labour both ditched their most electorally successful leaders – Thatcher and Blair – in messy coups, and both have been haunted by the homicides ever since: almost literally in fact with Thatcher making her successors’ life hell, and Blair popping up, as he did last week, reminding his party of its better yesterday.
But many a dud leader (electorally) of the big two parties was allowed to hang about for far longer than politically sensible: Hugh Gaitskell (arguably), Michael Foot and Gordon Brown for Labour, and Winston Churchill, William Hague, John Major and Ted Heath on the right. If you really want to get bitten, badly, you need to be leader of the Libs.