Lembit Opik is leading the charge. The former Lib Dem MP for Montgomeryshire is the first one to break ranks in the wake of another terrible set of local election results for the Lib Dems and call for Nick Clegg’s head. He told BBC Radio 5 Live:
The problem is Nick Clegg: there is a poll today which suggests that 19 per cent of the people like the Lib Dems without Clegg; 12 per cent like Clegg without the Lib Dems.
My empirical view is that we would have done better with a different leader.
I don’t dislike Clegg as a person but I think you can actually point at specific mistakes he has made.
Except there is no charge. Lembit is the only one saying anything remotely like this. And his stock has fallen so low that party strategists think his intervention is actually helpful for the Lib Dem leader.
So why are there not dozens of MPs, councillors and activists on our TV screens denouncing Clegg and the coalition? It would surely happen in any other party that had just fallen to its lowest number of councillors ever. Here are a few reasons:
- Things are not as bad as last year. Even in seats they have lost, Lib Dem activists say they did not receive the kind of hostility they found on the doorstep as last time. They think the party could be (very gradually) on its way back.
- There were even some gains, and crucially they came in Tory areas. At the next general election, party members know they will be fighting to retain their current seats, not win new ones. And 80 per cent of those are in areas where the Tories are second. Small gains in places like Portsmouth, Cheltenham, Colchester and Southport suggest the party will be able to fend off the Tory challenge in 2015 (although it’s worth pointing out they lost Winchester to the Tories).
- The party is used to governing and being in coalition. Many local councillors have been in power across the country and are used to sharing power with the Tories, and know the sacrifices that entails.
- The party is very good at staying in touch with its local activists. Partly because it is small, and partly because it is known as the party of local government, the Lib Dem leadership puts a lot of effort into staying close to its councillors and local supporters. As I write, strategists in Clegg’s office are busy hitting the phones making sure they hear what their members are saying. They are desperate to make sure that Opik remains a lone voice, and the evidence so far is he will.
UPDATE Patrick O’Flynn at the Express has pointed out I’ve missed one. So here is number five:
5. All the rebellious LD councillors have already defected to Labour.