Vince Cable is facing questions over his loyalty after one of his closest allies resigned over a failed attempt to get Nick Clegg sacked, claiming the business secretary had been aware of secret polling that undermined the Liberal Democrat leader.
In a day of chaos for the Lib Dems, Cable strongly denied being involved in attempts by his friend, Lord Oakeshott, to get rid of Clegg, insisting he was strongly behind his leader. However, the business secretary was forced to admit he had known about some of his ally's damaging polls that suggested voters would prefer Cable as party leader.
Oakeshott quit the party, 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 commissioned the surveys from pollsters ICM that showed Clegg in Sheffield Hallam, Tessa Munt in Wells, Ian Swales in Redcar and Cable in Twickenham were likely to lose their seats under the current leadership.
The surveys were leaked by an unnamed party to the Guardian after the Lib Dems lost hundreds of council seats and polled only 7% in the European elections in fifth place behind the Greens, triggering suggestions from some Lib Dem MPs that Clegg should consider his position.
Oakeshott, who helped found the party, said Clegg had led the Lib Dems to "no roots, no principles, and no values". After stepping down, he also revealed a fifth poll suggested Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, was on course to come third to the SNP and Labour in his Inverness constituency.
Cable said on Tuesday it was "utterly reprehensible" to commission and publish polls without the consent of the MP, including in Clegg's seat. But in his resignation statement, Oakeshott said he had told Cable the results of the four polls several weeks ago. He said Cable had also approved the survey of his own Twickenham constituency, though the business secretary had asked for the question about what would happen under a change of leadership to be taken out.
In an interview with the BBC after Oakeshott's resignation, Cable denied knowing about the Sheffield or Inverness polls but admitted being "aware" of others and the general trends they showed, as well as having had a detailed discussion about the results relating to Munt, his parliamentary private secretary.
He said: "I was aware that he was conducting other polls around the country and I was certainly told in general terms what the trends were, and in one particular case concerning … Tessa Munt from Wells, we sat down and discussed the details with her. But I had absolutely no knowledge of, or certainly was not involved in any commissioning of the surveys that were done in Sheffield Hallam and Inverness, and indeed I criticised them very severely yesterday.''
Cable, who is travelling in China, said he regretted his relationship with Oakeshott had "finished up in this way" but hoped his longstanding friend, whom he has accompanied on family skiing holidays, would reconsider his decision to leave the party.
Oakeshott said he would be taking a leave of absence from the House of Lords and urged fellow Lib Dems to heed the "evidence" he had shown them about Clegg's leadership. He also claimed the party – and others – had been involved in offering cash for peerages.
"A few stout-hearted MPs and peers, and hundreds, maybe soon thousands, of candidates, councillors and Lib Dem members all over Britain are now fighting constituency by constituency for a leadership election," Oakeshott said in a statement.
"I have tried to give them the evidence they need to make the change. I pray that they win, and that the right man, or preferably woman, is now elected to save the party."
Among those who have called for Clegg to think about his future are John Pugh, MP for Southport, and almost 400 Lib Dem activists, including at least 28 councillors. Local groups in Cambridge and Birmingham are shortly to hold meetings to discuss Clegg's future as leader.
Senior Lib Dems have rallied round Clegg, however. Giving a speech on international aid, the deputy prime minister brushed off Oakeshott's efforts to undermine him with "surreptitious" polls as "odd, to put it very mildly". Before the resignation, he had also signalled that Oakeshott would be disciplined, but avoided a question about whether he thought Cable was also involved in plotting against him.
"I think it is totally unacceptable that people in a campaigning party facing very difficult elections last week, as we were, find out now with hindsight that a senior member of the party, far from actually going out to try and win votes, was spending time and money to undermine the fortunes of the party," Clegg said.
A spokesman for the party said 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 than in helping friends and colleagues get elected."
Lib Dem sources maintain that Clegg's position has been strengthened by the number of senior party figures who have backed him in the wake of Oakeshott's efforts, including former leaders Paddy Ashdown and Sir Menzies Campbell, as well as Shirley Williams and a large number of MPs.
Earlier, Lib Dem officials, determined to quell a nascent revolt against Clegg's leadership, had demanded that ICM, the polling company, reveal the identity of the anonymous individual who commissioned the poll, claiming this was required by polling company rules.
Nick Moon, the director of ICM, referred himself to the British Polling Council but was told there was no requirement to identify the person or organisation that commissioned the poll as long as neither ICM nor the poll's commissioner was responsible for the leak to the Guardian.
Michael Dugher, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, criticised the Lib Dems for squabbling among themselves. "At the very moment when people want solutions to the country's problems, Nick Clegg is at the head of a self-indulgent rabble of a party – turning in on themselves, rather than standing up for hardworking families," he said. "It doesn't matter who resigns – the truth is you can't trust a word any Lib Dem says."
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