Nick Clegg has led the Liberal Democrats since December 20071  - but for how much longer? Lord Oakeshott has recently suggested that the party needs to be ‘looking very hard now at both its strategy and management’2 - not an outright demand for Clegg to go but certainly a shot across the bows. This follows up on a recent poll by Lib Dem Voice, a prominent website for party members, which suggested that the party is split on whether Clegg should remain as leader until 2015.3 Martin Kettle of the Guardian thinks it is a question of ‘when, not if’ the party decides that Clegg should go, although I do not agree with his headline assertation that the ‘Lib Dems are ruthless’.4 On the other hand, Andrew Rawnsley thinks Clegg still has some time left to turn things around5 and the man himself seems prepared to tough it out.6

Much as it pains me to admit this, I agree with Polly Toynbee’s assertion7 that Clegg chose badly when he opted to become Deputy Prime Minister, and that he should have held out for one of the three Great Offices of State.8 DPM sounds like an impressive job title, but it has two major problems. First and foremost, the name makes it clear that Clegg is subordinate to Cameron, to be called upon only when the PM is away on important business or ‘chillaxing’ on holiday. Secondly, the other problem is that the office of DPM has the taint of Prescott’s tenure - a convenient place to dump any areas of government which no other minister wants to touch (usually with good reason). The job title might sound impressive, but it is largely a token gesture towards someone you can’t afford to exclude from the Cabinet, but at the same time you don’t want to hold any real power.

As might be expected, Lib Dem old timer (and past party leader) Paddy Ashdown has jumped in to defend Clegg.9 His opinions are still snapped up by the press, although to me he is to the Lib Dems what Major is to the Tories - a leader from the past with varying degrees of success, but no longer in any position of influence. His defence of Clegg looks backwards rather than forwards, trying to draw parallels with his time as leader  and arguing that opinion polls aren’t important. Whilst I agree with the latter point to an extent, it is the dissatisfaction of party members and MPs who will decide whether Clegg is removed as leader, not the general public.

In terms of replacing Clegg, should he decide to jump or be pushed, Vince Cable appears to be the media favourite, perhaps unsurprisingly given that he has the highest profile and the most senior government position after the party leader.

In many ways, Vince Cable reminds me of Ken Clarke. He’s been around a long time, is a bit of a maverick, and sufficiently heavyweight to get away with openly disagreeing with party policy from time to time. The public like him, the media look to him for opinions and quotes, and even his opponents have a grudging respect for his experience.

However, as with Clarke – who has stood for the Conservative leadership on numerous occasions – I think Cable’s chances of winning a leadership contest are slim, and he would be a poor choice if the party decided to elect him. Being likeable doesn’t make you a good leader, at least not by itself. No matter how popular a politician is now, their standing within their party and in the eyes of the public will begin to wane once they have to start making tough decisions. Furthermore, whilst I dislike judging people’s ability based on age, the fact is that Cable will be over 70 by the time the next general election is called. In the past, no one would have blinked an eyelid at this, but party leaders have been getting younger since 1997, and I think Cable would look outdated next to Milliband and Cameron. That’s not particularly fair, but in the age of 24/7 media, appearances matter.

If not Cable, then who is left? With so few MPs,10 there’s not a lot of choice to begin with, but let’s use the original Orange Book authors as a starting point:

  • David Laws: Disappeared from front line politics, but rumours of a return have been circulating recently. His expenses claims cost him a Cabinet position, but sufficient time may have passed for the party to forgive him that. Enthusiasm for economic reform may not endear him to some in the party though.
  • Ed Davey: Good all-rounder, holding a number of positions within the party and the government. However, he is currently only Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and I don’t feel this gives him a good enough platform to launch a leadership challenge from. One to watch in the future though. * Chris Huhne: Has lost out twice for party leadership, but against Clegg the count was extremely tight, with some arguing that Huhne could have won if postal ballots had not been delayed.11 However, his current prosecution for allegedly perverting the course of justice12 makes it unlikely that he would be able to join a leadership contest if one were to be held before 2013.
  • Susan Kramer: No longer an MP (lost to Zac Goldsmith in 2010).
  • Charles Kennedy: Was popular with the public and enjoyed a high media profile when leader. Might struggle to gain support of MPs in a leadership election but has not completely ruled out the possibility of a return. An outside possibility at best.
  • Mark Oaten: Retired at the 2010 general election, and therefore no longer an MP.
  • Steve Webb: Shied away from running in the 2007 leadership election and decided (wisely, with hindsight) to back Clegg. Holds a high profile position as Minister of State for Pensions and might be more ready for the mantle of leadership than Ed Davey.

Not the most promising of lists. Whilst I think that there are one or two potential future candidates for leader, I’m not sure that any of them are ready and willing to take over in the middle of a parliament.

In conclusion, whilst I’m unconvinced either way about whether Clegg should go, I think it’s likely that he will lead the party into the next general election. There’s little incentive for him to jump, and I don’t think anyone in the party is ruthless enough to push him. The lack of credible and willing alternatives means Clegg runs a real risk of ending up like Gordon Brown - constantly undermined but never formally challenged, doomed to stumble on to a crushing defeat the next general election. A sad end for a leader who took his party into government for the first time in its history.