Should Nick Clegg quit? Some of his activists think so, as does the odd Liberal Democrat MP. Their argument is superficially compelling: that the party would do better under a new leader. After last week’s humiliations, you can see their point. However, the case for change at the top is intellectually hollow. If the party’s claim now is that it has transformed itself from immature party of protest to mature party of power, then ditching the leader when the going gets rough is hardly a proud emblem of that transformation. Were he not so naturally polite, Mr Clegg’s reply to his critics should be: “Welcome to government: this is what happens to parties in power. Get over it.” Nor, in fact, would a change at the top work, even tactically.
A new party leader who disowns much that Mr Clegg and his colleagues have done in government – especially their notorious tripling of tuition fees – would still fail to gather the protest vote, because it would be an almost comically blatant dodge. It would also sacrifice whatever credibility the party has been able to win during these past four painful years. Even if Mr Clegg were run over by a bus, the most credible alternatives, notably Vince Cable, have been in the thick of it. After all, it was the Business Secretary who drove the changes in student fees through Parliament.
For the Liberal Democrats, there may have been a case for putting party before country back in 2010, and preserving the party’s appeal to an increasingly disaffected electorate. But they rightly threw in their lot with the Conservatives, to the benefit of a country in need of stable government. A cynic might conclude it was all a smart plan by the Tories to destroy an increasingly troublesome enemy; but we are where we are, as our politicians say.
In any case, although it is unfashionable to say so, Mr Clegg’s leadership has served the country well, and as leader he should ultimately take credit for the positive impact it has made in government. This includes the economic recovery and sticking to “Plan A”; taking everyone who earns less than £10,000 out of income tax; humanising tough policies on social security and immigration; blocking moves to curtail personal freedoms; and helping to preserve our relationship with the EU in a government dominated by Eurosceptics.
Mr Clegg has around him in government highly effective, combative ministers such as Mr Cable, Danny Alexander, Simon Hughes, Norman Baker, Ed Davey, David Laws and the quietly efficient – and deeply impressive – Pensions minister Steve Webb, responsible for the most far-reaching reform the Coalition has enacted. By contrast, does anyone imagine that Nigel Farage and his insurgents could run even a single department of state?
So Mr Clegg has the confusing record of being the most successful and the most disastrous leader in his party’s history. Electorally, he has overseen a virtual destruction of the gains made under Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, and may lose his own seat next year. But unlike his predecessors, Mr Clegg has manoeuvred his party into power, showing extreme fortitude and competence along the way. To jettison him now, just when he deserves his party’s loyalty, would not only be immature; it would show Liberal Democrats to be precisely the amateurs their enemies have long suspected.