He's behind you... Will Cable play the undertaker again?

As the junior coalition partners gather, their chief should beware the man whose visits presaged doom for leaders past

It has become as much a part of Liberal Democrat tradition as sandals and silly conference debates: a leader knows it is time to clear his desk when Vince Cable comes to tell him what the party thinks of him.

Charles Kennedy was hustled closer to the door after Christmas in 2005, when Mr Cable delivered a letter signed by 11 of the 23 frontbenchers, expressing a lack of confidence in his leadership. Less than two years later, Mr Cable was on hand at the demise of Sir Menzies Campbell.

As he carries on his unequal struggle with his coalition partners and many in his own party, Nick Clegg should be careful to whom he opens the door in future. The signs are this time, however, that if the Lib Dems' undertaker turns up at his leader's office, he will be there to measure for curtains.

It is a dramatic change for a man who has built a career shinning carefully up the greasy pole, yet insisting he had no ambition to reach the very top. In recent months, as Mr Clegg has battled in vain to reverse his plummeting fortunes, the calls for the man regarded by many activists as the heir apparent have multiplied. The conference in Brighton this week will be an opportunity for him to charm a party that is increasingly willing to be seduced.

Last month Lord Oakeshott, a Cable ally, suggested Mr Clegg should consider standing down before the next election. Andrew Bridgwater, vice-chairman of Devon and Cornwall regional party and chairman of the Lib Dem education association, wanted Mr Cable to be installed as soon as possible.

But the "game-changer" was an interview with The Financial Times in July, when the Business Secretary made clear he was ready to serve, should he be called upon. He said: "I don't exclude it Ω who knows what might happen in the future."

Mr Cable is not expected to go further this week and trigger a bloodbath by the seaside, but the gathering chatter about his leadership potential will not help Mr Clegg's cause. Many remember the torrid experiences of Charles Kennedy Ω who could not avoid public questions about his leadership at the party conference in 2005 – and Sir Menzies Campbell, who both left soon after uncomfortable conference performances.

Few believe Mr Clegg is in this position – particularly because, this time, the leader is also Deputy Prime Minister, and any change would prove damaging for the coalition and, in turn, the economy. The assertion yesterday by his deputy, Simon Hughes, that Labour would find the Lib Dems good coalition partners will not help – not least as Mr Cable is a former Labour councillor.

And the polls are stark. A survey of paid-up party members for the Lib Dem Voice website published this week shows Mr Cable's net rating is plus 75 per cent, compared with Clegg's rating of plus 4 per cent. Close behind Mr Cable are party president Tim Farron, on plus 63 per cent, and Ed Davey – a possible future contender for the leadership – on plus 51 per cent.

On the specific issue of satisfaction with the leader among party members, the Deputy PM scores a minus rating for the first time – minus 2 per cent compared with plus 19 per cent in June. A separate poll by ComRes for The IoS among all voters shows that 27 per cent believe Mr Cable would make a better leader of the Lib Dems than Mr Clegg. However, 25 per cent disagree, while 48 per cent don't know. In a figure which would be crucial if Labour were the largest party in a hung parliament in 2015, 38 per cent of Labour voters think that Mr Cable would make a better leader than Mr Clegg.

The party's own polling is rumoured to be equally dismal. One senior Lib Dem maintains that private surveys suggest that half of the membership believe Mr Clegg is not doing a good enough job – or needs to be replaced altogether.

According to one unkind joke doing the rounds on the first day of conference in Brighton yesterday, the leader has formed a new boy band: No Direction.

"I feel he has let us down badly in a number of areas, but particularly on the huge increase in university fees to £9,000, which was a big election commitment by the Lib Dems and a personal one by Nick," said a Bromsgrove Lib Dem member who would identify himself only as Ken. "We actually discussed this with Simon Hughes last year at the Solihull branch dinner, and I felt there was some sympathy with our position among some grass-roots MPs, and also embarrassment with the leadership."

The breakdown in the leader's famed ability to connect is not limited to relations with the grass roots of the party as, further up the food-chain, his MPs are beginning to complain about his behaviour. The Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock, who is recovering at home after major heart surgery, complains he was more than three months into his recovery before he received a note from his leader. The colourful Mr Hancock has never been a slavish supporter of this or any leader, but that tardy response has reinforced his concerns about the future of the party under the current leader.

"Some of us signed the tuition fees pledge because we believed it," he said. "Clegg should be apologising for breaking the pledge, not for making it.

"I now regret signing up to the coalition agreement. The Lib Dems are used to adversity; what we aren't used to is our own leader making our adversity even worse."

The embarrassments of recent months, notably the Tories' failure to support Mr Clegg's proposals for reform of the House of Lords, have undermined confidence in the leader's ability to pursue a Lib Dem agenda in a coalition government. Although there is patent anger at the dominance of the Conservatives – one consultation document on the environment complains that Lib Dem ministers have been undermined by "constant in-fighting" with Tory colleagues, and "Tory Europhobia" – there is also frustration at the Lib Dems' inability to rein in David Cameron.

The much-derided decision to apologise for the tuition-fees debacle was an attempt to distance the party from the Tories and the strategy this week will follow the same track. As the leader arrived in Brighton yesterday, there were already clear signs of a campaign to win back support of his grassroots by giving definition to the Lib Dems in government. Danny Alexander announced he would only back Tory cuts until 2015, not beyond – in a move that had won approval from Clegg critics yesterday.

Both Mr Clegg and David Laws, who returned to the Government in the reshuffle, expressed support for a mansion tax in a sign that they are attempting to head off a showdown with Mr Cable over the measure. Getting the issue on to centre-stage may be the first of many victories for the Business Secretary this week.

Clegg apology soars up the iTunes chart

Nick Clegg may be struggling in the political polls, but he was soaring up the music charts last night – thanks to the spoof version of his tuition fee apology. "Nick Clegg Says I'm Sorry (the Autotune Remix)" climbed to No 39 in the Apple iTunes chart little more than 12 hours after its release. The spoof initially entered the chart at No 116, but sales soared as it became a viral hit.

The Deputy Prime Minister gave permission via Twitter for the song's release, providing profits go to Sheffield Children's NHS Foundation Trust – his wife, Miriam, is a patron.

The track was the work of 28-year-old music producer Alex Ross, more widely known for Latino music and the satirical website the Poke.

A spokesman for the website said: "Nick Clegg has been very good-humoured about this. He has become the first politician in history to achieve a position in the pop charts for making an apology.We're staggered by its success."

Rachael Day

Progress report

"Life on the doorstep is still not a breeze, but doors are not slammed in our faces! I think there is respect for the fact we've kept calm, carried on and worked hard. "

Sarah Ludford; MEP

"The reshuffle reflected the direction of the coalition over the last year: the Tory right has become more strident. The coalition is increasingly regressive."

Benjamin Ramm; Liberal commentator, former editor of 'The Liberal' magazine

"The decision to go into the coalition was taken collectively. Nobody should draw conclusions at the halfway point. What we need now is strategic patience."

Nick Harvey; Ex-minister for Armed Forces

"While Liberal Democrat ministers have undoubtedly made a difference, this has largely been in marginal areas. Those so-called 'gains' have not been worth the losses."

Richard Grayson; Ex-Lib Dem director of policy

"Nick Clegg can't lead effectively when the party needs him. The 'Orange Book' people were ambitious people who wanted power, but don't offer any ideological direction."

Lembit Opik; Former MP

IoS quiz: Are you auto-tuned or off-key with Lib Dems?

1. Which top Lib Dem once received a certificate of commendation from the British Transport Police?

a) Chris Huhne b) David Laws c) Ed Davey d) Norman Baker

2. Whose family made their fortune from the Ryness chain of shops?

a) David Laws b) Nick Clegg c) Jo Swinson d) Lynne Featherstone

3. Vicky Pryce, the ex-wife of Chris Huhne, has a book out next week. What is it called?

a) The Highway Code b) Greekonomics c) 101 Ways to Win an Election d) My Story

4. Nick Clegg apologised last week. But what for?

a.) Introducing tuition fees b) Breaking a pledge not to introduce tuition fees c) Bringing Ed Davey into the Cabinet d) Singing out of tune

5. Who, according to an early draft of a Nick Clegg speech, is a bigot?

a) Someone who opposes gay marriage b) Someone who doesn't agree with beards c) Someone who swears at police d) Vince Cable

6. On Monday, conference will debate road safety. Will Chris Huhne be:

a) Delayed by traffic b) Taking to heart all that is said c) Speaking d) Asking his wife to speak for him

7. If someone at conference asks if you've read the Orange Book, what should you say?

a) Is that the list of best restaurants in Brighton? b) This is no place for sectarianism c) I really enjoyed Mark Oaten's essay on tough liberalism d) Are you trying to drum up support for Nick?

8. David Steel once told conference "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government". What will Nick Clegg tell his party this week?

a) I'm sorry b) I'm not sorry c) Now it's time for the second half d) Help!

Answers

1. c. 2. d. 3. b. 4. b. 5. a. 6. b. 7. c. 8. c.

0-2 Woeful. Penalty points for you, driver!

3-5 Fair. Time to swot up on your secondary standing order amendments

6-8 Hats off. You are top of the iTunes chart!

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