Lib Dem peers see Ed Davey as next party leader

Support for the Energy Secretary is growing amid fears that Nick Clegg could lose his seat

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Senior Liberal Democrat peers want Energy Secretary Ed Davey to succeed Nick Clegg as party leader after what is predicted to be a dire general election for the party.

The Lib Dems are expected to lose between 20 and 30 of their 56 MPs in May, with growing fears that those losses could include Mr Clegg’s seemingly safe seat of Sheffield Hallam.

Tim Farron, the foreign affairs spokesman, is a heavy favourite – evens with William Hill and 6/5 with Paddy Power – to win any succession battle, as he is popular with activists who are disillusioned with the political sacrifices needed in coalition. The Westmorland and Lonsdale MP’s reputation flourished during his party presidency (which ended in December) because he was critical of the Conservatives, even claiming that David Cameron gave too many jobs to his friends.

But many peers fear that Mr Farron would cause the party to lurch to the left. They are increasingly looking to Mr Davey, the long-serving Kingston and Surbiton MP, as a centre-ground candidate.

“There has always been a bedrock of support for Ed Davey in the Lords and that has been growing recently,” a prominent peer said. “There are senior members of the Lords who think he is clever, a reliable liberal, and extremely good at dealing with people at every level of the party.”

A second peer, Lord Avebury, said that while it was “premature” to discuss succession, Mr Davey would nevertheless be “very good” at the top job and would be his preferred candidate. The 86-year-old added that Mr Clegg had done “very well” but had never recovered from breaching a 2010 manifesto pledge to oppose increases in university tuition fees.

Mr Davey is also emerging as Mr Farron’s most credible challenger because of perceived weaknesses among the leading alternatives. There are concerns that Vince Cable, the 71-year-old Business Secretary, is too old, and Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is tarnished among party members because of his closeness to Mr Clegg.

The dark horse candidates were considered to be Health minister Norman Lamb and Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, but the latter ruled himself out of any future contest in an interview with The Independent on Sunday last year. Jo Swinson would be a popular choice, particularly for the leader after next, should she hold on to her tightly contested East Dumbartonshire seat.

A source close to Mr Farron’s camp said that he would welcome Mr Davey’s challenge. “The last thing Tim wants is an unopposed election,” added the source. “That would be terrible for the party and terrible for the legitimacy of the next leader – and Tim and Ed do believe different things on different issues.”

Labour is growing in confidence that it can, at least, drastically reduce Mr Clegg’s majority in Sheffield Hallam from more than 15,000 to about 3,000. Even if the Deputy Prime Minister survived, a substantial number of losses would almost certainly force him to give up the leadership.