Could Nick Clegg be the last-ever leader of the Liberal Democrats?
Posted by Fraser at 9 10 AM on Sunday, August 22
As Deputy Prime Minister, he’s doing a great job. For the Tories. Their poll rating is soaring, while the LibDems are in freefall.
Inside Clegg’s party, the grumbles have started — and talk of a split is growing. The question is who, and what, would remain.
Recent rumours that whisky- haired Charles Kennedy is planning to join Labour, with four other LibDem MPs, had a whiff of truth about them.
When Charlie turns up late for Commons debates (i.e. most days) and can’t find a seat, he usually toddles off to the Labour side.
With most of his LibDem mates in government, he’s run out of drinking partners. So he ends up getting all maudlin with Labour MPs. I’m told that the “talks” with Labour are 2am moans. And that the only defection being considered is from Glenfiddich to Glenmorangie.
Kennedy is a gifted, articulate politician who didn’t apply himself. If he’s going to cross the floor, he needs to be able to do it in a straight line.
But I’m told there’s at least one other LibDem MP who has held far more serious talks. And about half a dozen ready to break from Clegg. But not now.
The obvious time for the split is after Super Thursday — the quadruple elections held next May. The LibDems will likely lose the referendum on voting reform, and be punished in their Scottish heartlands for supping with the blue devil.
This time next year, the LibDems will have nothing more to gain from coalition. Clegg’s men will be itching to get back into opposition. I’ve been impressed with Clegg in the last few months. He’s been on the right side of most arguments, especially on poverty and school and welfare reform.
But not everyone sees it that way. Especially not the LibDem foot soldiers who hate Tories — and love saying so at election time.
What’s the point of power, they ask, if it will obliterate the party? Some polls suggest four in five LibDem MPs will be out at the next election.
Clegg claims different. If he wasn’t in bed with the Tories, he says, “I don’t think people would take any notice of the LibDems”.
It’s a staggering admission. He basically talks as if he’s playing for keeps — and can’t ever imagine the LibDems by themselves.
While Clegg talks coldly about the “tribal” nature of politics, he forgets he’s supposed to be a tribal leader. It’s not a job he relishes.
If his tribe will split, it needs a new rebel leader. One reason why the disgruntled Menzies Campbell may yet be sent to Australia as High Commissioner. Someone else — perhaps Simon Hughes — could break away and form a new Social Democrat party. The question is how many others will join him.
If it’s a lot, then the LibDems will be over. Not a big deal for a party whose history doesn’t go back further than Kylie Minogue’s music career.
But the sensible small-government liberals (David Laws, Nick Clegg, Jeremy Browne) could settle down in the Tory Party where they are genuinely admired.
In a few weeks, Clegg must meet his party malcontents at the annual conference. And be asked why the poll rating is a third of where it was three months ago.
Whether it’s splinter or split, some kind of LibDem break-up now looks inevitable. And the Tories will be dearly hoping they can gobble up whatever remains.
FRASER Nelson is also Editor of The Spectator.