Nick Clegg may or may not be thrilled that Paddy Ashdown has urged party members to stand by their leader after Lord Oakeshott’s rather vicious attack on him yesterday. It depends slightly on the Deputy Prime Minister’s reading of history: as Tim Montgomerie observed last night, the endorsement of a former party leader can sometimes seem like a death knell.
It is interesting, though, that it was Lord Oakeshott who launched the first public attack on Clegg’s leadership (that is, if you discount the helpful suggestions from ex-MP Lembit Opik). Not surprising, of course: the party’s former Treasury spokesman in the Lords is not known for delicacy when it comes to radio interviews. But what is striking is that while a peer has suggested that the party look ‘very hard now at both its strategy and its management’, Liberal Democrat MPs remain remarkably loyal to their leader.
While Conservative backbenchers are now competing for the best insult for their leader, the Lib Dems in the Commons have managed to stay largely silent on Clegg. The reason for this can be traced back to the formulation of the coalition, and in particular the coalition agreement. While the Lib Dems signed the programme for government in blood by going through the wording, discussing it with their local parties and putting it through the ‘triple-lock’ process, Conservative MPs were not party to such formal voting. ‘The first I knew of it was when a whip opened the door of Committee Room 14 and told us to stand for the leader of the Conservative party,’ one Tory MP told me recently. Stewart Jackson remarked on Twitter yesterday that Tory MPs were ‘told that primary legislation for PR was inevitable between Lab-Lib Dems if we didn’t agree’. The consequences of this extend far beyond MPs’ attitudes to the coalition agreement.
Even those Lib Dem MPs in the ‘awkward squad’ such as Mike Hancock and Sir Bob Russell have been vociferous about what they don’t like about the government, but have stayed away from calling for Clegg’s head, or even described him in the derogatory terms we’ve seen from Tim Yeo and Brian Binley in te past week. That may well change as the party starts to think seriously about what on earth its strategy is for 2015, but for now the Lib Dems show a loyalty to their leader that the Conservatives failed to encourage in their own party over two years ago.Tags: Coalition, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, UK politics