The only surprise about the botched coup against Nick Clegg was that Team Clegg was surprised about it. Lord Oakeshott, the instigator, had advertised it eight months earlier when he called for Mr Clegg to be toppled. “There will still be time, but next May/June will be the last chance,” he told Parliament’s House magazine last September.
Surprisingly, Clegg allies believed Lord Oakeshott was keeping his head down following the Liberal Democrats’ terrible performance in the European elections. He was doing nothing of the sort. Paddy Ashdown, the former Royal Marine Commando and Lib Dem leader, had warned Lord Oakeshott he would “cut your balls off” if he called for the Lib Dem leader to quit after the elections. So the first stirrings came from Sandra Gidley, a former MP, and Naomi Smith, co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum pressure group. “We put the women up; Paddy couldn’t cut their balls off,” Lord Oakeshott quipped.
But the peer’s purpose was deadly serious. He believes the Lib Dems are heading for electoral oblivion at next year’s general election. Installing his close friend Vince Cable, the left-leaning Business Secretary, as party leader might just tempt back 2010 Lib Dem voters who switched to Labour as soon as Mr Clegg hopped into bed with David Cameron. It was not a mad proposition. “We want Clegg to stay,” one Labour insider admitted. Without those 2010 Lib Dems, Labour would now be behind the Tories in the opinion polls. Conversely, some Tory ministers muse that a Cable-led Lib Dem revival would help them see off Labour in key marginals next year.
But the Oakeshott plot boomeranged. By leaking polls hinting that the Lib Dems might do slightly better with a different leader, the party’s former Treasury spokesman managed to damage himself and Mr Cable, who knew something about the surveys. Lord Oakeshott jumped out of the party before he was pushed.
Mr Clegg has been wounded because it emerged that a sizeable chunk of Lib Dem activists want him to go. Despite his denials, my guess is that Mr Clegg did consider resigning after losing 11 of his 12 MEPs. In staying on, he made the right call. The primary purpose in phase one of the Lib Dems’ journey from protest to power must be to show that “coalition works.” Ditching the man who led them into coalition would make the Lib Dems look like the shambles they sometimes appeared when they were an “all things to all men” protest party. If the Lib Dems are serious about wanting power, they must now rally behind Mr Clegg.
With the economy improving, there is still time for the Lib Dems to win a grudging respect from voters for opting for the national interest in 2010. Putting the party interest first would not impress anyone. The Lib Dems will need to shout even louder about what they have achieved in government, notably the £10,000-a-year personal tax allowance, and what they stopped the Tories doing. There is a good story to tell. Doing so requires discipline, not self-indulgence.
The Lib Dem turmoil eclipsed the real story of the local and European elections: it looks impossible for the Tories or Labour to win an overall majority next year. Without the Clegg crisis, Labour’s poor performance would have become the story. It miscalculated that Ukip would mainly damage the Tories, repeating Tony Blair’s mistake: the working class has “nowhere else to go”. It does now – Ukip. Privately, the Tories and Labour calculate the Lib Dems could hang on to more than 30 of the 57 seats they won in 2010. No one knows the impact of the Ukip wild card but it is clear that Nigel Farage’s party will hurt the Tories and Labour more than it harms the Lib Dems. It’s a safe bet that the Lib Dems will have a lot more seats than Ukip, which will struggle to win more than a handful.
The Tories and Labour laughed at the entertaining diversion provided by the Lib Dems this week. But Mr Clegg’s party – not Ukip – is very likely to hold the balance of power after the general election. That might not lead to another full-scale coalition – especially if the Tories are the largest party – but would still give the Lib Dems significant influence under a looser agreement in which they would back the bigger party in key Commons votes. The Lib Dems may yet have the last laugh.
Labour leadership fail to feel the love
“Our problem is that everyone in there hates someone else in the team,” one Labour insider groaned as he emerged from a recent strategy session.
Labour’s ship is a not happy one after disappointing local and European election results. The criticism of Ed Miliband from his backbenchers was louder than the very muted Tory noises off about David Cameron. Anyone would have thought that Labour had come third in the Euro elections, not the Tories. Mr Cameron’s party looks more confident about the general election than Labour.
Mr Miliband did a good job of uniting his party after winning the leadership in 2010. He now needs to deploy his healing powers again. The internal rivalries and personality clashes in Labour’s high command are dangerous. John Woodcock, the MP who chairs the Progress group of Labour modernisers, will issue a timely warning at its annual conference in London today, urging the party to “knuckle down” to the essential task of winning.
“No one should hedge their bets by getting their excuses in early – winning for the people we represent matters too much for that,” he will say. It’s time for an outbreak of brotherly love. But that won’t happen unless Labour regains some momentum.