A senior Liberal Democrat has called on the party to consider ousting Nick Clegg as its leader in order to prevent a meltdown at the 2015 general election.
Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, the party’s former Treasury spokesman, likened Mr Clegg’s leadership to that of Michael Foot, who led Labour to a crushing defeat at the 1983 election. His intervention is a blow to Mr Clegg on the eve of the Liberal Democrats’ annual conference in Glasgow, which starts on Saturday.
Interviewed in Parliament’s The House magazine, Lord Oakeshott warned that the number of Liberal Democrat MPs could fall from 57 to just 20 if Mr Clegg leads the party into the next election. “It’s nothing personal,” he said. “We need to face facts. There’s quite a lot of complacency and self-delusion going on … It’s very important to maximise our national share of the vote to give our MPs the best chance.”
He added: “We have to accept that Nick’s ratings have been poor and have been for a long time. You’ve got to be frank that his ratings are down at levels which, if you go back, were only seen by Mrs Thatcher shortly before she left and Michael Foot.
“You have to say ‘Where [are] our prospects at the next election if we don’t have a major and clear change and detachment from the Conservatives?’ and we’ve got to think about the best way to get that message over.”
Pointing to opinion polls last year suggesting that the Liberal Democrats could add three or four percentage points to their ratings under a different leader, Lord Oakeshott said: “These are things people have to think about given how sensitive the number of our seats will be. It’s for the party to decide.”
He said the “crunch time” would come after next May’s local and European elections.
“I think that’s when everyone will focus on things and I hope we will have a good hard look at our prospects for the [general] election. There will still be time, but next May/June will be the last chance,” he said.
Lord Oakeshott, a close ally of the Business Secretary Vince Cable, described him as a “very successful minister”. He is seen as the most likely successor if Mr Clegg stands down before the 2015 election. Lord Oakeshott also called on the Liberal Democrats to leave the Coalition six months or a year before the election.
The Liberal Democrat peer said Mr Clegg himself would admit that “economics has never been Nick’s special subject”. He portrayed the party leader as out of step with most Liberal Democrats, whose “heart beats on the left rather than the centre or right”.
A pension fund investment manager for more than 30 years, he disclosed that he and his wife have shareholdings worth £10m.
Mr Clegg shrugged off the attack tonight. A source close to him said: “No-one should be surprised that Matthew Oakeshott has once again used the media attention of conference season to attack the party leader. His opinion shouldn’t surprise anyone.”
Mr Cable also slapped down Lord Oakeshott, saying: “Matthew is an independent-minded member of the House of Lords, with his own views. He does not speak for me. His comments were seriously unhelpful.”
A senior Liberal Democrat source added: “Nobody who has ever spoken to Matthew will be surprised to learn that he doesn’t like Nick Clegg and that he enjoys talking about how rich he is. This is a predictable annual occurrence. He last called for Nick Clegg to resign at conference in 2012. You can set your calendar by it. Having a dig at Nick gives Matthew his occasional moment in the sun.”