Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Lib Dems’ Paramount Leader survives to fight another day


Unsurprisingly perhaps – in view of the tragi-comic opera unfolding hourly at the dissident end of the Lib Dem spectrum – Nick Clegg seemed rather chipper on Wednesday for a leader who had just seen his party all but wiped out.

Most people age in a crisis, but weirdly Clegg looks, if anything, younger. No longer the harassed, red-eyed quarry of Monday’s post-election TV interview, he even seemed to relish his first public appearance at what he (accurately) called the “splendidly trendy location” of the Village Hall in London’s Hoxton Square. 

Admittedly there was quite a lot going for him despite the en masse desertion of actual voters. Not only was he giving a speech on the non-toxic subject of overseas aid, but doing so to a lively young audience of NGO workers and volunteers who for some reason were more interested in the plight of the world’s poor than in polls showing that the landslide general election defeat for which his party seems to be heading might be (very) marginally reduced if another coalition minister were leading it.

And never mind a week being a long time in politics. In the internet age 24 hours is a whole epoch. The surprise outing (and disowning) on Tuesday by Vince Cable of his presumably now ex-henchman Lord Oakeshott for commissioning the polls, coupled with the obligatory insistence that there “is no leadership issue as far as I am concerned”, had already appeared to turn things round by the time Clegg bounced to his feet in Shoreditch.

So far so good. But it wasn’t long before His Lordship, unrepentantly pre-empting the “appropriate steps” Clegg envisaged being taken against him, went out with a bang. He withdrew to spend more time with “my business and my charity”, predicting electoral “disaster” for the Lib Dems under Clegg and begging the party to replace him. Only to be contradicted yet again from China  by “my old friend Vince Cable”, who must by now be puzzling his hosts with his habit of getting out of bed in the middle of the night to issue ever more fraught statements of support for the Paramount Leader, Chairman Nick.

Himself caught by some (not very) friendly fire from Oakeshott, who unhelpfully disclosed that he had given the poll results to Cable “several weeks ago”, an understandably bleary Business Secretary appeared – so far as could be judged against the incongruous background of nocturnal traffic streaming through downtown Beijing – to insist that he had “absolutely no knowledge of, or certainly was not involved in any commissioning of” the poll in Chairman Nick’s constituency.

But Cable said he hoped that Oakeshott, his friend of 40 years’ standing, would in time return to the Lib Dem fold. The not-entirely clear TV recording helped to symbolise a confusing day. The Paramount Leader is probably safer than he was  48 hours ago. Whether the same can be said for his party’s electoral future is another matter.

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