If only Lord Oakeshott knew how to carry out a coup...

The Lib Dems would be better off with a new leader

I am still quite partisan, I discover. I am unenthusiastic about the present Labour leadership but feel a childish delight in two things. One is the belated discovery by some Conservatives of the virtues of preferential voting. There was a spectacular rant by Max Hastings in the Daily Mail today about the threat of an undemocratic result at the next election, putting Ed Miliband in Number 10 against the wishes of the majority of voters. What bliss it is to be alive as it dawns on the No to AVers that first-past-the-post voting is going to take Ukip-surged seats away from the Tories that the Alternative Vote would have delivered to them.

The other source of childish partisan delight is the fate of the Liberal Democrats. Only the Lib Dems could realise that they have a problem, diagnose it correctly and then make such a mess of putting it right that they leave things as they are.

Winning 7 per cent of the vote in the European Parliament elections was a warning. They were overtaken by the Green Party. But more serious was what happened in the local elections. In London, the Lib Dems were wiped out of council after council. Islington, Tower Hamlets, Brent. In other places, such as Manchester, where the party had once presented a strong opposition to Labour, it yielded to one-party states.

The Lib Dems are facing such a sharp reduction in their number of MPs at the next election that the party’s future is in doubt. They know that changing leader might help save a few. They know that Nick Clegg is personally associated with the U-turn on tuition fees and with breaking promises in general. They also think that this is unfair: all Lib Dem MPs have their hands steeped in the blood of coalition. What is more, Vince Cable, the obvious alternative leader, is the Secretary of State actually responsible for breaking the pledge not to raise tuition fees.  

But this is not about fairness or logic. It is about saving their skins. A different leader at the next election would allow the party to distance itself a little from the unpopular choices it has made in government. Clegg is too far gone, and his success in making a show of sincerity in the TV debates at the last election now counts against him, just as Tony Blair’s rather greater success in the sincerity business now counts against him.

Matthew Oakeshott, Cable’s embarrassing former ally, the Reginald fitzUrse to Cable’s King Henry II, rightly identified the problem. This was how to persuade reluctant Lib Dems that Clegg was a liability and Cable the solution. So he commissioned some opinion polls that unfortunately failed to support that argument. Interpreted correctly, they suggested that Clegg, Danny Alexander and Julian Huppert would hold on to their seats next year, although other Lib Dems might lose. Indeed, a YouGov poll for The Times this week asked a direct question: how would you vote if various people were the leaders of the main parties. The figures for the Lib Dems were the same if Clegg or Cable were leader: 8 per cent.

That is the trouble with polls: people are bad at predicting how they would respond if things were different. I think the Lib Dems would benefit if they were led by some old guy who has been around a bit and sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about. But I cannot prove it with opinion polls: it is a matter of judgement. In this judgement, Oakeshott is right. His trouble is that he doesn’t know how to run a coup.

So the Lib Dems are doomed to fight a deeply defensive campaign next year, in which they will be lucky to save half of their current 56 seats.