The whispering campaign against Nick Clegg took a new twist this week when it was revealed - to the surprise of no one with more than a vague interest in politics - that Lord Oakeshott was the man responsible for commissioning the opinion polls which suggested that Clegg would lose his Sheffield Hallam seat and that the party would be better off under the leadership of Vince Cable or Danny Alexander.
Oakeshott has previous form in this area, having issued coded warnings about Clegg’s leadership for several years. This time, however, he appears to have overstepped the mark, and as former allies such as Cavle hastened to distance themselves from the errant peer, Oakeshott decided it was time to quit the party and take a leave of absence from the House of Lords.1
After the resignation, senior party members rallied round Clegg with varying degrees of loyalty, ranging from Ashdown’s standard unquestioning support2 to Cable’s more nuanced comments in favour of ‘the party leader’. None took the opportunity to stab Clegg in the back (or, indeed, the front) or position themselves to do so.
Part of the reason why I believe Clegg’s position is safe is that there are only four men (yes, I’m afraid they are all men) who are in a position to challenge him, and all are unlikely to do so.
The elder statesman of the party, Cable is generally well liked and respected. However, this respect is part of the reason why I think he is unlikely to either challenge Clegg directly or throw his hat into the ring if someone else does. At present, Cable has a cushy position running a large and important department, plus speaking engagements and several books under his belt. Why throw all that away for a chance to lead a bruised and battered party, when you can walk an easy path into retirement on a generous pension and with copious amounts of goodwill both inside and outside the party? Only an ambitious gambler would choose the risky option at the age of 71, and I do not believe that Cable suits either of those adjectives.
At the age of 42 and with a public position as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, someone in Danny Alexander’s position would normally be a natural choice for the leadership. However, he is far too close to Clegg, having served as his chief of staff, a confidant and negotiator in the coalition discussions, and has branded Oakeshott ‘malicious’ for trying to unseat the leader.3 It would take a substantial and embarrassing u-turn for Alexander to challenge Clegg or run against him in any contest. Furthermore, the opinion polls which were at the centre of this debate forecast only a small improvement in the party’s fortunes if Alexander was to become leader - had they been more positive then they might have provided a stronger platform on which to build a bid for the top job.
An MP since 1997, Ed Davey has slowly worked his way up the party, holding a range of positions. Although his current position as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change does not give him a particularly public profile, Ed Miliband managed to jump from there to party leader - albeit with a brief gap when Labour were kicked out of office. Davey allegedly prepared for a bid for the leadership back in 2012, though the source for that information was the Daily Mail.4 I haven’t heard him say anything in public either way, so either he is playing his cards close to his chest, or he simply has no interest in running for the leadership at this time. Either way, I can’t imagine him challenging Clegg at the moment. His constituency majority is also rather slim, and could easily fall to the Conservatives at the next election.
As Minister of State for Pensions, Steve Webb has enjoyed a high and generally favourable media profile, due to the current government’s changes to the pension and annuities regime. He received sufficient nominations to run in the 2007 leadership campaign, but decided to back Clegg instead, suggesting that becoming leader himself would put too much of a strain on his family. He has backed Clegg again recently, and does not appear to have any aspirations for leadership.
In short, therefore, Nick Clegg is likely to survive - if not on his own merits then because there is no one willing or able to replace him at this juncture. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but it’s probably the best Clegg can hope for after two disastrous election results.