Its probably the most obvious statement in contemporary British politics- Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats have a public image problem. Party fortunes are poor, with the YouGov daily poll tracker registering their vote share at between 8% and 12%. For the Liberal Democrats this is extremely low, and although polls don’t necessarily translate to electoral fate and particularly Parliamentary seats, it puts them about level with the largest of the “others” – UKIP. In crude terms, The most recent YouGov poll, when applied to the 2010 electoral map, gives the Liberal Democrats just 30 seats, about 5% of the total number.
As bad as it is for the Liberal Democrats, its worse for Nick Clegg. The vast majority think he is doing badly as Liberal Democrat leader (76% to 15%). He is viewed as indecisive (66% to 14%), untrustworthy (58% to 24%), weak (75% to 11%) and only just likeable (42% to 38%.) His unpopularity is becoming part of the national culture and locally he is resented intensely by many of his constituents although he remains likely to retain his seat.
Given this impressive unpopularity, surely it makes sense to ditch him as leader and move onto somebody who isn’t a social pariah? Not particularly. In the same YouGov poll they ask which Liberal Democrat would make the best leader, Clegg included. Despite his unpopularity, he still came second only to Cable. Cable scored 21%, Clegg 12% and nobody else above 3%. Technically the winner was don’t know, on 56%, which tells you the danger of ditching Clegg for somebody else. Although people may think they are likely to vote Liberal Democrat with another leader, that “other leader” is just a hypothetical, onto whom better qualities can be projected.
But then surely Cable is the best bet? Again, not necessarily. Questions about Cable still elicit a high number of don’t knows, making him similarly susceptible to wishful thinking from the electorate. His presence as Liberal Democrat leader has been estimated to potentially increase the Liberal vote by a few points. That wouldn’t be anywhere near their share at the last election – Liberal Democrat electoral woes are more fundamental than that.
Of perhaps greater concern is how the long-term politics play out. Any new leader would need a period of several months to reshape the party and to make his mark on the public. If Clegg were removed today, his successor would likely face serious questions about whether to remain in coalition. If he/she chooses not to, a Conservative minority government would be formed, likely to crumble quickly under parliamentary mathematics. In this case of an early election, its very unlikely that a Liberal Democrat leader could reinvent the party, or even win the fight for news coverage with a precarious national government.
It seems much more sensible that Clegg leave sometime before the next election, but not too soon. A new leader will need time and media coverage, and an ability to put coalition struggles firmly behind it. This also seems the most likely option – Clegg appears to lack the messianic self confidence of Tony Blair, and probably knows that marginal Liberal Democrat MPs will be sharpening the knives if the right noises aren’t being made in the 12 months before the election. Clegg will step down, but he shouldn’t and won’t be doing it any time soon.