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Coffee House

Oakeshott attack on Nick Clegg highlights how safe the Lib Dem leader is

13 September 2013

8:56 AM

13 September 2013

8:56 AM

The Lib Dems have had a lot to get used to since coming into government: not least the growth of their conference from something that members could stroll in and out of with their knitting needles, and that only the most junior hacks were sent to. But only three years into holding conferences as a party of government, they’re starting to notice a pattern. Firstly, there will be a bit of rabble-rousing from the party’s president Tim Farron, who will drop some flirtatious hints about Labour, his heart beating on the left and how the Tories are a bit naughty. Then Vince Cable will say something a bit melancholy. Then Lord Oakeshott will say Nick Clegg needs to step aside in favour of Cable, who could march the party into a majority government in 2015. The only thing that’s missing from this year’s perfect reproduction of the pattern is Lembit Opik – for the time being at least.

But what’s interesting about Lord Oakeshott’s interview with the House magazine is that his comments, though the same, highlight how much has changed for Nick Clegg in just a year. The peer tells the magazine:

‘Since UKIP came along we do seem to be pretty stuck around 10% in the opinion polls, it’s a pretty narrow band between 8 and 10%. We’ve been like this for a long time, there’s no sign of improvement. Let’s be objective: we have to accept that Nick’s ratings are very poor and have been for a long time. You’ve got to be frank that his ratings are down at levels which if you go back were only seen by Mrs Thatcher shortly before she left and Michael Foot. It’s nothing personal, you’ve got to look at the facts.’

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Nothing personal, although Oakeshott also manages a deliciously bitchy dig at Clegg, saying ‘I think Nick himself will say economics has never been Nick’s special subject. It’s on the record that he read Arc and Anth [Archaeology and Anthropology] at [Cambridge] University.’

But the point is that thought Oakeshott is a known ally of Vince Cable, who has this morning called the comments ‘unhelpful’, his views are now clearly residual, rather than part of a prevailing Get Clegg mood in the party. Activists are annoyed with the leadership and have a few plans to give it a bloody nose on the economy and nuclear power at this conference. But this was the conference where Clegg was expected to face his serious leadership challenge, probably from Cable. He hasn’t – and James outlines the Lib Dem leader’s reasons to be cheerful in this week’s magazine, and we discuss this in more detail on this week’s View from 22 podcast. Clegg’s party conference starts in Glasgow tomorrow afternoon, and Clegg’s biggest challenge isn’t fighting a foe among his colleagues, but preparing his activists for pragmatic policymaking in the run-up to the 2015 election. Oh, and avoiding Lembit…

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