Every Liberal Democrat conference since the Coalition formed has taken place amid reports of potentially fatal opposition to Nick Clegg’s leadership, and the one that starts in Glasgow today is no different. For those who would talk up the drama, the tension between the old-fashioned liberals (of whom the current leader is one) and the more socially democratic activists (with whom Vince Cable is a favourite) is reaching crisis point.
There is certainly some tumult in the ranks. First, Sarah Teather – who shot to prominence as Westminster’s youngest MP when she arrived in 2003 – announced her intention to stand down at the next election, citing fundamental differences with Mr Clegg on such emotive issues as welfare and immigration. Then Tim Farron, party president and would-be Clegg-successor, gave an interview so gushily supportive of Ed Miliband it was impossible not to get the message that Mr Farron, for one, hopes for a Lib-Lab coalition after 2015. Finally, Lord Oakeshott, renowned supporter of Mr Cable, likened Mr Clegg to Michael Foot – who led Labour to disastrous defeat in 1983 – and suggested that the best way to avoid the impending electoral meltdown would be to remove him.
The polls are also uniformly awful. Mr Clegg’s personal rating hovers somewhere below minus-50, even with the slight improvements of the past year. Meanwhile his party’s share of the putative vote has dropped from 23 per cent at the last election to around 9 per cent now, up to three points below the UK Independence Party Yet, despite everything, the Liberal Democrat leader heads to Glasgow in bullish mood – as the interview in The Independent today makes clear.
It will not be plain sailing. There will be the usual smattering of provocative votes; Trident, tuition fees and the 50p tax rate, to name but three, will all feature. But the really tricky one is on Monday and is about the economy.
Mr Clegg’s critics will argue that the Liberal Democrats, freed from the constraints of coalition, should not and would not support the Chancellor’s strategy. And in a rare move for a leader, Mr Clegg will wind up the debate himself, setting out his views on why withdrawing support for the Government’s economic policy now is both economically and politically ill-advised.
It is a daring move. If he loses, the consequences would be difficult indeed. But the chances of that – as Mr Clegg has no doubt calculated – are relatively slim. Most importantly, the case he makes is a sensible one. Public spending has indeed climbed unaffordably high; moreover, it makes little sense to abandon that position just as the economy is showing signs of improvement. It can only be hoped that the sceptics prove persuadable.
But there are broader considerations in Mr Clegg’s favour, too. One is that, having voted for Coalition, there is more support for making the best of it than there might appear to be. Hence Ms Teather’s complaints have not started a mass movement, despite their articulating views held by many on the Liberal Democrat left. Another factor is that, grumblings aside, many activists think the outlook may be less grim than the polling suggests.
Why? Largely thanks to February’s Eastleigh by-election, won despite its being precipitated by the resignation of the disgraced Chris Huhne. By apparently confirming that Liberal Democrat seats are held on local issues, not national ones, Eastleigh spawned hopes that 2015 might not be a wipe-out after all – a view shared by Mr Clegg.
Whether such optimism is justified remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, only the ambitious or the absurd (or both) seriously advocate regicide. For all the sound and fury in Glasgow, Mr Clegg has, since 2010, played a near-impossible hand with some adroitness – and he will continue to do so until 2015 at least.