The Liberal Democrat Treasury minister Danny Alexander has called on his party to "cut out all this nonsense" about whether to replace Nick Clegg, as he attacked a "malicious" attempt to unseat the leader by a close friend of Vince Cable.
The chief secretary to the Treasury hit out at Lord Oakeshott, who commissioned a series of polls that suggested the party would be better with a new leader. The surveys also indicated that Alexander, Cable, Clegg and three other Lib Dem MPs would lose their seats in 2015.
Oakeshott resigned as a Liberal Democrat peer, warning that the party was heading for disaster, after the secret polls were leaked to the Guardian in the wake of very poor results in the council and European elections. Cable has denied any involvement in the plot to destabilise Clegg, but has faced questions over his loyalty after it emerged he discussed some of the polls with Oakeshott.
In his first comments since the poll suggested he would come third behind the SNP and Labour, Alexander said he had not seen "a more useless opinion poll in my time".
"It was constructed by a malicious peer trying to damage the Liberal Democrats," he said. "I think we should take it with a very heavy pinch of salt. I'm content to stand on my own record in my own constituency and I think I will get very strong support at the next general election, and look forward very much to serving in parliament and I hope in government too in the next parliament."
He also defended Cable, arguing that the business secretary's latest denial of involvement had "put an end to all that sort of speculation".
"I think what we have to do now is make sure as a party that we are united, we cut out all this nonsense and get on with the important job, which is to explain with renewed vigour to the British people the difference that we are making," he said.
Speaking to the BBC while in China, Cable also called for an end to feuding within the Liberal Democrats and insisted again that he was not involved in the Oakeshott plot. However, asked if the party was heading for disaster, he said: "I'm not going to give ad hoc answers."
Explaining his position, Cable chose his words carefully and stressed there was "no disloyalty whatsoever". He said he was not aware of the secret polling in Sheffield and Inverness – the seats of Clegg and Alexander – but he did know about some of the other surveys.
"To be absolutely clear, I'm supporting the party leader. People are putting around the story that there is some division on that," he told the BBC. "There is not and I've made it absolutely clear from the beginning of this week that there is absolutely no leadership issue. We have a united team. We clearly have to recover from the very difficult election. I'm part of that team and I will be supporting the leader on that."
Speaking on BBC Sheffield and LBC Radio on Thursday, Clegg sought to draw a line under the divisions and made it clear he did not believe "for a second" that Cable was involved.
"I spoke to him yesterday. He clearly didn't know a thing about a poll being conducted in Sheffield," said the deputy prime minister. "Sheffield Hallam has been very, very critical about that happening and as I said yesterday I just think, clearly, we had some really, really bad election results last week. That of course quite rightly means there are a lot of questions and soul-searching and debate about exactly what we do as a party over the next year."
A number of party grandees have taken to the airwaves to give Clegg their support. Sir Graham Watson, a longstanding MEP who lost his seat last week, said nobody believed Cable was deliberately trying to undermine Clegg, but he added: "Of course it's the case that sometimes we can be as treacherous by our failure to stop something as we can by being involved."
One missing part of the jigsaw is what happened when Oakeshott sat down and discussed some of the poll results with Cable and the Lib Dem MP Tessa Munt, whose Somerset constituency of Wells was surveyed.
Asked about the poll by the Guardian, Munt said she could not comment because she was on holiday and did not "know what's going on", although her Twitter feed suggested she had attended a business networking event in her constituency on Thursday morning.
Julian Huppert, the Cambridge MP whose seat was surveyed, is also believed to be on holiday, but his local association decided in his absence to hold a meeting on 13 June to decide whether they "can support Nick Clegg's continuing leadership or consider issuing a notice to the party to hold an election for leader".
Ian Swales, the Redcar MP whose constituency was also polled by Oakeshott, told his local Gazette that the results suggesting he would lose his seat were "based on a small sample and look very amateurish".
"Decades of Labour MPs and the neglect of the last Labour government left the steel works closed and the whole area on its knees. I don't think people will forget that in a hurry," he added.
Oakeshott quit the party on Wednesday, warning that it was heading for disaster under Clegg's leadership. He resigned the day after being named by Cable as the senior party figure who had commissioned the surveys from pollsters ICM that showed Clegg in Sheffield Hallam, Munt in Wells, Swales in Redcar and Cable in Twickenham were likely to lose their seats under the current leadership.
Among those who have called for Clegg to think about his future are John Pugh, MP for Southport, Stephen Tall, the co-editor of the Lib Dem Voice website and almost 400 Lib Dem activists, including at least 28 councillors. Local groups in Cambridge, Luton, Winchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, among others, have announced or are considering holding meetings to discuss Clegg's future as leader.
Senior Lib Dems have rallied round Clegg, including the former leaders Paddy Ashdown and Sir Menzies Campbell, as well as Shirley Williams and a large number of MPs.
Liberal Democrat officials maintained that Clegg's position had been strengthened by the number of senior party figures who have backed him and Oakeshott's decision to resign was "understandable in the circumstances". But privately, senior Lib Dem sources were much ruder about Oakeshott, who was a founder member of the SDP, a predecessor of the Liberal Democrats, in 1981.
"Matthew Oakeshott was the man behind the rather hamfisted attempt to destabilise the leadership," one source said. "He has failed and he has now resigned. Most Liberal Democrats will think that is a good thing. This is a lancing of the boil – Oakeshott has long been a malign figure in the party, pursuing his own malicious agenda, rather than do anything for the benefit of the party. Nowhere was this truer than him lavishing tens of thousands of pounds on slanted private polling rather than in helping friends and colleagues get elected."
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