DEPUTY Prime Minister Nick Clegg was clinging on to the leadership of the Liberal Democrats last night after his party was dealt a humiliating result in the European parliament elections, losing ten of their 11 seats.
An exhausted-looking Mr Clegg gave an interview in the wake of the electoral catastrophe insisting he would not step down or change direction despite calls from senior figures for him to go.
He was forced to defend his party’s record in government after it had been pushed into fifth place in the vote across the UK and sixth in Scotland and Wales behind the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru,
His task was made harder by a jubilant Nigel Farage, who mockingly thanked Mr Clegg for challenging him to a televised debate on Europe which boosted the Ukip surge.
Ukip became the first party outside the Tories and Labour parties to win a UK-wide election in 100 years.
They took seats in every region – except Northern Ireland, which had yet to declare its result last night, although it looked unlikely that a Ukip MEP would be elected. In total Ukip will send 24 MEPs to Brussels.
A series of senior Lib Dem MPs came out as the day went on and were fiercely critical of Mr Clegg’s leadership.
Southport MP John Pugh said he wanted Business Secretary Vince Cable to take over as leader, warning that voters’ unwillingness to listen to Mr Clegg was a fundamental cause of the Lib Dems’ “abysmal” showing.
“If we carry on as usual, we are like the generals at the Somme, because these losses are horrendous,” he said. “Given the scale of the losses, to call for business as usual is frankly ludicrous.”
Fellow back-bencher John Hemming has suggested Mr Clegg should consider his position, while former MP Sandra Gidley warned that the Lib Dem brand has become “toxic”.
Former minister Sir Nick Harvey claimed that the Lib Dems had not been willing enough to defy the Tories.
“It is difficult for the smaller party to make the larger party do things that it does not want to do, but it should be relatively easy to stop it doing things that we don’t want it to do,” he said.
“We are Liberals, we are not Conservatives.
“We will work with you on things where we agree but we are not willing to just sign up as readily as I feel we have to some of the Conservative agenda.”
But a haggard-looking and red-eyed Mr Clegg, who appeared to have not slept, said in a television interview that it had not “crossed his mind” to resign, adding that he “wouldn’t hesitate” if he thought it would help the Lib Dems.
“If I thought any of our real dilemmas would be addressed by changing leadership, changing strategy, changing approaches, bailing out now, changing direction, then I wouldn’t hesitate advocating it. Absolutely not,” he said. “This is a really difficult time but also a time to hold our heads high for the case we made, the case for an open-minded, generous-hearted, internationalist Britain.”
“We have our work cut out . . . I know that as much as anyone else, but we do that by being as resilient and united as we have been despite all the predictions to the contrary.
“To get out there and explain when people make that big final judgment in the General Election next year that we have done what we said we would do when we entered into government back in 2010.”
He was helped in the short term by his chief rivals, party president Tim Farron and Business Secretary Vince Cable, who both voiced support and ruled out replacing him as leader.
Mr Farron was vocal in his loyalty, praising the leader for his “backbone” in standing up for the unpopular European cause, while Cabinet minister and Inverness MP Danny Alexander warned critics against plunging the party into a damaging period of introspection.
Mr Cable, who was in China on a government trade visit as the election results came in, insisted the Lib Dems had “no leadership issue” and urged the party not to indulge in “infighting and introspection”.
Former leader Sir Menzies Campbell insisted it was not time for “a black tie . . . and funereal voice”, insisting: “There’s no doubt in my mind that Nick Clegg is the person with the courage and the resilience to take the party through to, during, and indeed after, the next general election.”
Lib Dem grandee Lord Ashdown, who led the party for more than a decade, said he had “respect” for the views of those calling for Mr Clegg to go – but believed they were wrong.
“Last night was a bitter, bitter, bitter night for us, and I feel the deepest pain for those really outstanding councillors and MEPs who have bravely fought for their communities, for the things they believe in, and the things that are right for Britain, and have not been elected,” he said.