Nick Clegg will try to calm the turmoil in the Liberal Democrats by promising to listen to his critics and learn lessons from the party's disastrous local and European election results.
The Deputy Prime Minister will adopt a conciliatory approach when he faces a difficult meeting with his MPs as an inquest begins into the rout which saw the party lose 11 of its 12 MEPs and come fifth behind the Greens.
But Lib Dem activists who are trying to force Mr Clegg to resign urged the MPs not to let him off the hook. They claimed they were being muzzled and pressurised by Lord (Paddy) Ashdown, the party's former leader, who has told critics to rally behind Mr Clegg.
Naomi Smith, co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum (SLF) pressure group, said: “A very significant number of activists, and certainly not just SLF members, are very disappointed by the general tone coming from the leadership, particularly Paddy Ashdown's warning shots to activists that doing anything other than campaigning damages the party. These are people who have dedicated their lives to the party and who have nothing but its long term survival in their interests. The best way to get people out campaigning is to have a clear purpose, clear values and clear leadership to unite people around that common cause.”
Clegg allies dismissed the idea of a showdown with his MPs. A senior Lib Dem source said: “This meeting is the first one since MPs returned from their constituencies after recess and has long been arranged in the diary to discuss both the Queen's Speech and the local and European election results.”
He added: “We had a poor set of election results and it is not unusual for a party in the aftermath of such results to see what is working and what is not working. Nick is very much in listening mode and is keen to hear the views of all parliamentary colleagues.”
Mr Clegg has also set up a review headed by James Gurling, who runs a public relations company and chairs the party's campaigns and communications committee. Mr Gurling promised “a full and frank one that explores both what went right and what went wrong in the campaign.” He added: “It is clear that there a number of points on both sides of that ledger and hence plenty of lessons that absolutely can and should be learnt.”
Mr Clegg has rejected calls by activists for him to stand down. But his grassroots critics are still trying to force a leadership contest, which would be triggered if 75 local parties demand one. The Ribble Valley party has already requested an election and many other parties are to hold meetings to consider the issue. Other parties are said to be reluctant to go public because they fear they would then come under pressure from Lord Ashdown to back down for the sake of party unity.
More than 400 Lib Dem members have signed an e-petition calling on Mr Clegg to stand down and for a new leader to be elected this summer.
A contest would also be sparked if a majority of the party's 56 MPs called for one. Although a handful has called for a debate about the leadership, none has yet formally urged Mr Clegg to resign. Clegg allies believe the worst of the storm has passed because a coup planned by Lord Oakeshott fizzled out when it emerged that he had commissioned opinion polls in five constituencies on whether the party would do better with another leader. Lord Oakeshott, a close friend of the Business Secretary Vince Cable, resigned from the party as it prepared to consider disciplinary action against him.