Paddy Ashdown put himself at the head of a “save Nick Clegg” operation as critics of the Liberal Democrat leader stepped up their attempt to oust him.
Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, the party’s former leader, appealed to members “not to lose our heads” after poor local and European election results. Writing in The Independent, he insisted that if the Lib Dems “keep our nerve and our unity, there is still everything to play for” at next year’s general election.
But rebel activists have dubbed Mr Clegg “toxic” and plan to force a leadership contest this summer. Under party rules, an election must take place when a majority of Lib Dem MPs or 75 local parties demand one. The Clegg critics are actively pursuing both options.
Some 250 Lib Dem members have signed an e-petition, revealed in The Independent on Saturday, calling on Mr Clegg to resign. They include councillors, candidates and former staff.
Sandra Gidley, a former MP who has signed it, said: “What we need over the next year is somebody to lead the party who is credible, who has questioned the coalition in the past, not seen to be in a love-in with David Cameron and has the confidence of the party.” She suggested Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, because he had been "independent-minded within the coalition".
She added: “We should be making more of a case for what we have done in the coalition and we are not able to do that at the moment while we have Nick, as a leader, associated with some of the negative aspects of the coalition - the broken promises.”
Chris Huhne, the former Lib Dem Cabinet minister, said: “One option being discussed is to keep Clegg as deputy prime minister, but elect a caretaker – Vince Cable – to lead the party into the general election. Another is for a clean shift to a new leader and deputy prime minister, possibly with a staged withdrawal from the Coalition to distance the Lib Dems from the Tories.”
Writing in today’s (mon) Guardian newspaper, Mr Huhne said that “solidiering on under Clegg” was the most likely option. “Regicide should never be undertaken lightly. It is rarely surgical, and Clegg does not want to go,” he said.
Three Lib Dem MPs --John Pugh, Adrian Sanders and John Hemming—said the leadership issue should be considered. Mr Sanders, MP for Torbay, said: "The problem is the messenger, very few people say it's the message."
But Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president and a possible future leader, said: “I just think, at this time, it would be absolutely foolish for us as a party to turn on ourselves.”