Four years ago Nick Clegg was arguably one of the most popular of all party leaders. His performance in the TV debates was lauded and there were even claims that the Liberal Democrats, judging by the polls, were in with a chance of significantly increasing their number in the House of Commons. Come the day after the 2010 General election, they actually lost seats. Nevertheless, they were a party who had grown considerably under Nick Clegg and they had reached a stage where they were strong enough to enter government. From then on, as I am sure you are aware; it has been a very steep downhill ride for the party.
The last recent election results from Thursday and Sunday were devastating for the party. The local elections since 2010 have not been good for the party, but there has always been a consensus that things can only get better. However, as recent results have shown, it is getting worse year by year. Losing MEPs in their strongholds such as the South West and finishing the night with just one (down from 12), it is not surprising by many of those who lost are raising serious questions over the party’s leadership.
Is Nick Clegg to blame for all the damage that happened last week? The simple answer is yes. While I have never been a real supporter of Nick Clegg, I do admire his determination for convincing people the pros of EU membership and respect his courage for debating with Nigel Farage, a debate who knew it would be impossible to win. However, he should really ask himself ‘should I have been so openly pro-Europe?’. Like Miliband, he is only offering a referendum if there is a transfer of power. As we saw on Sunday, the rise in Eurosceptic behaviour across Europe makes it seem very unlikely that any further treaty changes would be accepted by the member states. Britain itself would have to hold a referendum on a treaty and judging by the rise of UKIP, it would be surprising if it was accepted. Back to the idea of the referendum, Clegg could have taken a very similar approach to the Green Party, who rather embarrassingly beat the into fourth place on Sunday. They, while being openly pro-Europe, support the idea of having a referendum in the near future. Across the majority of Europe, not many people want to hear the words that Europe is good and beneficial and by doing so, Clegg has essentially made himself and his party extremely vulnerable.
To make matters worse, this morning Nick Clegg would have seen a leaked poll showing that there is a very good chance of losing his ‘safe’ seat of Sheffield Hallam to the Labour next year and this is the fear that is now spreading through the party. If Clegg loses his ‘safe’ seat, are any Liberal Democrats ‘safe’? No matter how hard parliamentary Liberal Democrat candidates try, I would be very surprised if they win any new seats. It is not surprising then that the list calling for Nick Clegg to resign, which includes many, parliamentary, is now around 300 and growing.
The sinking Liberal Democrat ship could be rejuvenated for the 2015 election however, only if Nick Clegg is not at the helm. Danny Alexander, Vince Cable and Ed Davey, all touted as possible replacements, would also be a disastrous move. As the vast majority of Liberal Democrat supporters will say, the past four years have not been a success, especially electorally. Therefore, the way forward for them is to essentially start afresh. They have to move on and anybody such as the people mentioned above, who are in the cabinet will not be able to do this. For example, Danny Alexander and Vince Cable have both played a significant role in the Coalition. It has to be somebody outside, somebody such as Tim Farron, the President of the Party.
This change though has to happen before the election. Clegg could still stay as Deputy Prime Minister, but he simply cannot lead them into the election. As one of Clegg’s critics said, it is the ‘messenger not the message’ that is the problem and I couldn’t agree more with them. Many Liberal Democrats are too calling for the coalition to break apart so the Liberal Democrats can rebuild themselves ready for the election. In fact, some Conservatives, notably Michael Frabricant writing in The Daily Telegraph believes now is the perfect time for the coalition to break away. It is unlikely that it will happen and there is very little chance that Clegg will go before 2015. He has stated he wants to stay until 2020, but if he is still leader come this time next year, they can expect a wipeout in the general election.