The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, faces a showdown with Liberal Democrat MPs who are demanding that he consider his position as party leader in the wake of the disastrous European and local election results.
A block of unnamed MPs are poised to demand his resignation, according to party sources, paving the way for the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, a possible "unity candidate", to take over in a "coronation" before next year's general election. Some are considering going public within days over their demands before the state opening of Parliament on 4 June.
They would be adding their voices to a swelling number of parliamentary candidates, councillors, activists and former MPs who have signed a petition calling on the Deputy PM to step down. They fear that under his leadership the Lib Dems could lose more than 20 of their 57 seats next year. One, Jackie Porter, a parliamentary candidate in Winchester, Hants, told the BBC: "It feels like the king is dead, long live the king. We have to make decisions to save the party not the person." Another parliamentary candidate, Ros Kayes, said the public had lost trust in Mr Clegg.
Mr Clegg has agreed to a request from John Pugh, the MP for Southport, for a review of the party's strategy in the next two weeks. Sources said that this will consider whether it is time for Mr Clegg to resign, a prospect that has gathered in momentum this weekend, after the Lib Dems lost 307 councillors. Most of the party's 12 MEPs are expected to lose their seats today.
Mr Pugh said: "I canvassed a number of backbench colleagues in the run-up to the elections and two strong themes emerged. There was a widespread view that no matter how much Nick spoke, there was a section of the electorate that would not give him a fair hearing; but, equally, there was a need to avoid civil war in the party. That's why I welcome the party calmly taking a root-and-branch look at our current strategy, including how and by whom it is presented. [The former Liberal leader] Jo Grimond's approach of walking 'towards the sound of gunfire' has been replaced by the less sustainable and more negative approach of digging in, in our constituency trenches.
"We need to try to improve the national profile and try not to make Nick such an obvious target. It's the elephant in the room and the party can't ignore it."
John Hemming, the MP for Birmingham Yardley, hinted he could be among the first to break cover and explicitly demand Mr Clegg's resignation. He said: "I'm not an enthusiastic fan of Nick's leadership, but whether any action is needed at this stage is an issue I will come to when I return to Parliament."
Activists launched an e-petition on Friday calling on Mr Clegg to resign. Signatories included Sandra Gidley, MP for Romsey from 2000- 2010. She said yesterday that Mr Clegg's "brand is now toxic" and it would be "helpful to have a fresh face". She added that Mr Cable was "the obvious choice" to take over, while other senior party figures pointed out that the septuagenarian would be a suitable "caretaker" until a wider leadership battle after the election.
Lembit Opik. another former MP, said: "I think he should stand down as leader, but stay as Deputy Prime Minister, allowing Vince an unopposed ascendency." One MEP added last night: "Nick seems to be carrying around a negative factor and I'm not sure how he gets around that."
The Lib Dem vote in its former heartlands has evaporated. In Southwark, the number of councillors was cut in half, from 25 to 13. In Liverpool, where the party ran the council from 1998 to 2010, there are only three Lib Dem councillors left.
Ros Kayes, parliamentary candidate for the target seat of West Dorset, said ground had been surrendered to the Tories on the NHS, welfare and education. "Nick Clegg has become a real hate figure," she said. "He hasn't stood by ordinary people and has not been listening to them. When that happens, his position becomes untenable." Martin Tod, a member of the party's federal executive, said Mr Clegg "needs to go before the next election".
It has been suggested that Mr Clegg could become a European Commissioner. However, a spokesman said: "There's no question that Nick's not going to be the leader up to, during, and after the next election."
Lord Rennard: Publish report
Lord Rennard, the former Lib Dem chief executive accused of sexual impropriety, has written to Nick Clegg demanding that a crucial report into the scandal be made public. Mediation between the peer and four female activists who complained about him recently collapsed. But during those talks the parties finally gained full access to findings of an earlier inquiry into the allegations by Alistair Webster QC.
In January, Mr Webster said there was less than a 50 per cent chance charges could be proven, but Lord Rennard should still apologise. He refused and, having seen the report, now believes it should be published.