John McTernan: The party’s over for Lib Dems

Clegg's survival until next May might imperil his party's very existence. Picture: Getty
Clegg's survival until next May might imperil his party's very existence. Picture: Getty
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Coalition is killing the Liberal Democrats, but because they don’t have any viable alternative leader, they face annihilation, writes John McTernan

It seems that the highest crime you can commit in the Liberal Democrats is to tell the truth. The party is toast and so, it seems, is its leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Lord Oakeshott has, rather nobly, quit the party and taken a leave of absence from the House of Lords. Incidentally, I do hope Ed’s office is talking to him. Like his friend Vince Cable he was once a Labour Party member. Perhaps, like David Owen, he can be persuaded to endorse Miliband. But that is for another day.

What we now have are some nasty unexploded bombs that Oakeshott has left for his former party. Nick Clegg looked pretty rough when he pitched up on breakfast TV earlier this week, but he must have thought he’d had all his bad news. He should have remembered Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Petrarchian sonnet “No worst, there is none”.

On every lip in the Westminster village is the question – spoken or unspoken – can Clegg survive? It’s a good question too. On the one hand, an unsuccessful coup attempt looks like an unmitigated win for him. On this reading, it’s simple enough: the plotter is gone. Party loyalty is swinging back into place. It now turns out that everyone interviewed this week always thought that Lord Oakeshott was a deeply disloyal cove – or so former leader Ming Campbell and former party president Simon Hughes said. Even Vince Cable, from far away in China, has had to denounce his friend.

On the other hand, though, there is the whole Vince thing. He knew about the polling and he was told about the results, but he doesn’t appear to have told anyone else about the polling until it all became public. It is not an ignoble ambition to aspire to lead your party and to be Deputy Prime Minister. However, it is – at the very least – not seemly to be caught out storing up damaging information about your current leader.

Clegg now faces the most brutal choice. Either he sacks Cable for his disloyalty – and risks a violent civil war in his party. Or he ignores the plotting – and demonstrates his own weakness. So far he’s embracing the status of beleaguered leader.

There is a second problem for Clegg. His party’s hopes for the future have been cruelly and comprehensively dashed. This isn’t just because of the routing of the Lib Dems in the local elections and the Euros. That was anticipated – though not quite the scale of the beating they got.

What’s new is the destruction of the sacred myth of local campaigning. Every Lib Dem will tell you that, whatever the polls say about falling support, they are well entrenched at a local level and will therefore out-perform whatever is expected of them. And, to be honest, the Eastleigh by-election gave some credence to that point of view. If you can win a seat when the sitting MP has been jailed, what has to happen for you to lose it?

Of course, hard-bitten political hacks will always argue that when the swing is in, there’s absolutely nothing you can do, and that MPs are just so many pebbles in a landslide. Now they have some hard evidence for this position in the form of seat-by-seat polls. Both Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg are set to lose their seats. It turns out breaking your word has a price – your own head. This will embolden Labour to add these seats to their target list, and to add Caithness and Sutherland for good measure. It will encourage Lord Ashcroft to poll Lib Dem seats in Scotland and I would anticipate that the Tory revival under Ruth Davidson will next year have at least one Liberal Democrat scalp as its first tangible trophy.

Will this mean the end of Nick Clegg? No. There’s both a good reason why this won’t be the case – and a bad one. The good one is that there is no obvious contender who can offer to improve the party’s prospects. The shorthand explanation could be called the Murder on the Orient Express reason – all the other potential leaders have blood on their hands.

Clegg has cleverly cycled nearly half of his parliamentary party through ministerial positions. This is not simply some 1960s-style trendy educational theory at work – “all shall have prizes”. It has a brutal Machiavellian logic too. And for this, the shorthand explanation is contained in the title of the Sex Pistols’ fifth single – No-one is Innocent. The “Orange Book” Lib Dems have no candidate and no excuses – the coalition with the Tories, which they wanted, is killing their party. The only senior Lib Dem with a strong political analysis and the charisma required to lead is Chris Huhne – and he’s out of politics. Both Clegg and Miliband will be grateful that Huhne is now in the commentary box and not still on the pitch.

The bad reason for not changing is the logic of the apocalyptic cult. What happens in a millenarian sect when the date of the “End of Days” comes and passes without incident? Do they disband after tearing the leader to pieces? No, they meekly re-calculate the dates and return to waiting. So it is with the Liberal Democrats. Nothing will ever persuade them that they should abandon the coalition – even though it is manifestly destroying them.

Perversely, the pain only confirms how right they were to go into government – and it impels them to stick to their alliance. This, they tell themselves, is what grown-up politics is all about. Wrong. It’s grown-up to cut your losses and move on. The Liberal Democrats are adolescents in their insistence that the whole world is wrong and only they are right.

Nick Clegg will indeed survive this crisis. But what price his survival – if only to next May – when he is risking the very existence of his own party. One of the many revelations contained within In It Together, Matthew D’Ancona’s excellent book on the coalition, is that Clegg has vowed not to be the last leader of the Liberal Democrats. If he succeeds in this aim it will be in spite of his actions, not because of them.