LIBERAL Democrat grandee Lord Ashdown has warned that ousting Nick Clegg as leader would “damage the Lib Dems for ever” as the fallout continued from the party’s latest electoral meltdown.
The former leader, who is chairing the party’s 2015 General Election campaign, said a leadership change was “just about the silliest idea I have heard in my political career”.
The Deputy Prime Minister’s future has been questioned by MPs as Lib Dem candidates in target Westminster seats joined voices urging him to fall on his sword over last week’s dismal local election results.
Mr Clegg has insisted he is staying, despite the party losing more than 250 councillors in council elections south of the Border.
Southport Lib Dem MP John Pugh suggested that a dozen of his Commons colleagues had expressed doubts over whether Mr Clegg should continue at the head of the party.
Mr Pugh said an internal “post-mortem” of the poor night at the polls – which saw the party almost or entirely wiped out in some former strongholds – “has to include a truly open, mature and balanced look at our whole strategy, including the leadership issue”.
Colleague Adrian Sanders, who represents Torbay, said: “The problem is the messenger; very few people say it’s the message.”
However, Lord Ashdown criticised the calls, as he suggested the Lib Dems would eventually benefit electorally from the party’s controversial decision to be part of the Conservative-led coalition government at Westminster.
He said: “This is the moment when we need to get out with a really good message and campaign through the summer in the context of the General Election and we spend it on an internal, totally unnecessary, divisive leadership election? I think that’s ridiculous.
“At the very moment when our sacrifices – and we have made some very big ones, painful ones – are beginning to gain traction, we turn in on ourselves.”
Mr Clegg was “the best prime minister Britain hasn’t got”, he said, insisting that the message would get through to voters by next May.
The public had to be convinced that the party could “hack being in government”.
He added: “If we were to take this step, the answer to that would be incontrovertibly ‘no’, and that would damage the party forever.”
Lord Ashdown, who was Lib Dem leader from 1988 until August 1999, said he respected the opinions of party members but dismissed calls for a change of leadership.
“This idea that is being put about by these people who are calling for a leadership election is just about the silliest idea I have heard in my political career,” he told the BBC’s Sunday Politics. He was backed up by Lib Dem president Tim Farron, who has appealed for an end to “absolutely foolish” calls from within the party for Mr Clegg to quit as leader.
Mr Farron – a favourite to succeed Mr Clegg – said: “Nick Clegg should undoubtedly stay.”
He said: “I have lost elections before and it is miserable, and I also understand why these people will feel that the message that they got back on the doorstep, that they don’t like us being in government and so on, is a really difficult one. But I just think, at this time, it would be absolutely foolish for us as a party to turn on ourselves.
“What has separated the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives the last four years is that while the Conservatives have been like cats in a sack fighting each other, the Liberal Democrats have stood united.
“That is what we will continue to do.”