Defenestrations galore: it’s the Lib Dems who are the real nasty party

Nick Clegg has no reason to be surprised by the events of the past week: the history of the Liberals is one of treachery, with a succession of leaders callously ousted by their party, writes Sean O’Grady

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.)

Charles Kennedy in 2006 Charles Kennedy in 2006 (Getty Images)
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.

Chris Huhne outside Southwark Crown Court last year Chris Huhne outside Southwark Crown Court last year (Rex Features)
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.

Paddy Ashdown Paddy Ashdown (Getty Images)
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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Bryan Cranston as Walter White, in the acclaimed series 'Breaking Bad'
news
News
Those who were encouraged to walk in a happy manner remembered less negative words
science
Sport
footballChelsea 6 Maribor 0: Blues warm up for Premier League showdown with stroll in Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
News
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones
i100
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Environment
Sudan, the last male northern white rhino
environmentThe death of a white northern rhino in Kenya has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells