European elections 2014: Nick Clegg faces fight for survival after Lib Dems' Euro disaster

Local Liberal Democrat party activists begin calling emergency meetings to force leadership contest as triumphant Nigel Farage predicts Ukip will hold balance of power at next year’s general election

Nick Clegg failed to quell a grassroots revolt by Liberal Democrat activists on Monday night as they stepped up an attempt to oust him following the party’s disastrous performance in the European elections.

After the Deputy Prime Minister refused to fall on his sword, The Independent learnt that activists had begun to call emergency meetings of local parties across the country in order to force a leadership election. They require the backing of 75 parties to trigger a contest.

The other way to open a battle over who should head the party is for a majority of the Lib Dems’ 56 MPs to support such a move. For now, most MPs are remaining publicly loyal to Mr Clegg or keeping their heads down, but some may call on him to quit in the next few days.

While an exhausted-looking Liberal Democrat leader clung on, his arch-opponent Nigel Farage celebrated a remarkable victory in the European  elections. His party came top with 27.5 per cent of the vote – the first time a party other than Labour or the Conservatives have won a nation-wide election in over 100 years.

 

Flanked by Ukip’s 24 MEPs at a Westminster hotel, Mr Farage told journalists: “If any of you think you have seen the high-water mark of Ukip you ain’t seen nothing yet.” He predicted that Ukip could hold the balance of power in another hung Parliament after next year’s general election.

Before the Euro elections, such a claim would have been laughed off by the three main parties. But none of them could afford to scoff at it now. While they hope the Ukip bubble will burst, they cannot be sure it will.

Mr Clegg admitted his decision to go head-to-head with the anti-EU party had backfired after his party lost 11 of its 12 MEPs and came a humiliating fifth behind the Greens.

Insisting that resignation had not “crossed his mind”, he urged his party to hold its nerve at a time when the tough decisions taken by the Coalition were finally paying off.

But grassroots activists accused the Lib Dem leader of being “in denial”. Critics seized on ICM opinion polls in four constituencies suggesting that the Lib Dems would do better with another leader. One found that Mr Clegg is currently in third place in his Sheffield Hallam seat.

Special constituency meetings are being planned in Cambridge, Liverpool, Winchester, Luton and Hackney and Bermondsey in London.

More than 340 members have now signed an e-petition calling on Mr Clegg to stand down. Crucially, they come from 150 different local parties. So if half their parties are persuaded to move against the leader, there will be an election.

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Kevin White, chairman of Liverpool Liberal Democrats, said: “I believe that Nick Clegg’s response to these elections is arrogant and disrespectful to all those people who have lost their seats.

“If he cared about the party he would go and go now. If he doesn’t, I will ask the Liverpool local party to sign the call for a leadership election.”

Naomi Smith, co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum pressure group, said: “The voters have given us a very clear message that is time for a fresh start for the Lib Dems. It is time for a new leader who can get a fairer hearing.”

John Pugh, MP for Southport, called the Euro results “abysmal” and “worrying”, adding: “To call for business as usual is ludicrous.” He said Mr Clegg should hand over to Vince Cable, the Business Secretary.

But Mr Cable, who is on a trade visit to China, refused to join the revolt. He admitted the results were “exceptionally disappointing”, but said: “There is no leadership issue. We have undoubtedly taken a kicking for being in government with the Conservatives and having to take some extremely tough decisions in the national interest. But now is not the time for infighting and introspection. The party must hold its nerve.”

Mr Farage set Ukip’s sights on winning next week’s Newark parliamentary by-election and listed many of the seats the party will target at the general election.

“Who knows – if Ukip hold the balance of power, then there will be a referendum [on leaving the EU],” he said.

Ukip’s targets will include Thanet South, Folkestone and Hythe, Great Grimsby, Boston, Yarmouth, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Aylesbury, Rotherham, Eastleigh and parts of Cambridgeshire.

The Ukip leader said he was about to appoint a series of new spokesmen and women in a move to shed the party’s “one-man band” image and announced work was already under way on its general election manifesto. Its policy platform would be launched this autumn at the party’s conference in Doncaster, where Ed Miliband is an MP.

Mr Farage dismissed suggestions that his party had been buoyed up by a temporary protest vote. He said: “The people’s army of Ukip are on their way to Newark. We are going to give it our best shot.”

The Ukip leader said its challenge, in a constituency where the party came a distant fourth at the last election, was the equivalent of climbing Everest, but insisted: “We are going to do our damnedest to try to pull off an even more spectacular result.”

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