Six steps Nick Clegg must take to stave off another coup

Vince Cable delivers speech

It started as a terrible week for Nick Clegg, with a trouncing from the electorate and an attack on his political life by an ally of Vince Cable.

In the days since, he has dispatched the main plotter, his old foe Lord Oakeshott, won the public backing of most party grandees from Sir Menzies Campbell to Shirley Williams, and come out fighting on his weekly LBC radio show.

However, the threat to Clegg's authority has far from dissipated. Only three Lib Dem MPs openly questioned his leadership, but many activists, councillors and parliamentary hopefuls are still pressing for a change in strategy that could make for an explosive conference in October, when the party's "pre-manifesto" is decided. Some of his critics suggest the following might help him get through the next year.

1. Show humility and declare a new direction

 

It looks as if Clegg will be leader of the party at least until after the next election, as his main leadership rivals – Cable, Tim Farron and Danny Alexander – pledged their devotion to him following the failed coup. In the words of one anti-Cleggist, the plotters are disappointed to have "grossly underestimated the guts and balls" of the party's MPs when it came to challenging their leader. But if they cannot have Clegg's head, the malcontents want at least a change of direction. Clegg has admitted that some "soul-searching" is needed and announced a "lessons learned" review by PR man James Gurling, but some suspect this will not translate into radical action. Former parliamentary candidate Martin Pierce is worried Clegg will interpret his victory over the rebels as a sign that he should carry on as before. The activist of 30 years, who signed the petition against Clegg's leadership, said: "If that is the case, he should not make the mistake of thinking that is some kind of victory and that nothing needs to change. My fear is that past experience however suggests he might do exactly that."

2. Acknowledge that the party compromised too much in coalition

"If somebody hits you over the head, are you going to believe it when they claim to be a pacifist?" That is in effect what the the Lib Dems did by positioning themselves to the left of Labour and then betraying those values on tuition fees, the bedroom tax, legal aid and the NHS, according to Linda Jack, chairman of the Liberal Left wing of the party. Jack believes it might be too late to avoid a bad result in 2015, but for the next year, she would like the Liberal Democrats to block more Tory ideas and stop agreeing to policies that were not part of the original agreement. "We need to take the fight more to the Tories. If it's not in the coalition agreement, it shouldn't be happening," she says. The grassroots group does not want Clegg to resign, but it is calling for him to stop "owning" all these coalition policies that are deeply unpopular with the Liberal Democrats' former voters on the left.

3. Stop trying to align the Lib Dems with Osbornomics

One of Clegg's goals is to present the party as noble for going into the coalition and to take some credit for the economic recovery. However, David Howarth, former Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge and a legal academic, worries that this strategy is fundamentally flawed. In an analysis of the British Election Study figures for Lib Dem Voice, he found the electorate is not taking that view. "Optimistic voters think – by over five to one – that we are not responsible for the conditions that give rise to their optimism. In contrast, those same optimists think the Tories can claim credit for the coming economic improvement by a majority of four to one," he said. The question of the economy will be a major one at the next party conference. Mark Pack, a member of the Lib Dem federal policy committee, has blogged on how fiscal hawks, such as Danny Alexander, will find it hard to argue for more austerity. "Their own position has been weakened and they know the high stakes risks of picking a fight with the party's grassroots. Much more likely, then, is a shift away from the sort of continuing cuts the Conservatives love towards a policy of boosting public investment once the structural deficit is cleared," he said.

4. Swallow the reality of polling

When Oakeshott published his provocative polling suggesting that Clegg and four colleagues could all lose their seats, the first reaction of the party leadership was to rubbish the surveys as flawed, too small, and wrongly timed. One of the five, Redcar MP Ian Swales, branded them "amateurish", while Alexander hit out at the peer's "malicious" attempt to unseat Clegg. Whatever Oakeshott's motivations, the rush to discredit his polling is seen by some in the party as a reluctance to confront reality. Pierce said the leadership "needs to worry less about the process and more about the potential results next year that Oakeshott's polls suggested". Fears of a leadership with its head in the sand were only intensified when parliamentary party chairman Annette Brooke fired off an upbeat message saying the Liberal Democrats were "winning elections" in its strongest areas following the loss of 300 councillors across the UK.

5. Boost the morale of ground troops

David Ward, the Lib Dem MP for Bradford East, feels there is a gulf between the leadership and grassroots. "Nick does not understand that because he doesn't come from that background," he says, referring to the fact that Clegg walked into a safe seat fresh from being an MEP. "If there's been a failing, and in my view there has been, it's between the street troops and army that we have at a local government level and the party leadership nationally." It would need 75 local constituencies to pass no-confidence motions to unseat Clegg from the leadership – an unlikely outcome. However, it is possible that Clegg will face a resurgence of animosity at party conference after a curiously calm event last year. Before then, local associations – proud of their democratic processes and expecting to be heeded – will be sending the central party a message about what it should do better. Spencer Hagard, chairman of the Cambridge branch, which is considering Clegg's leadership, says: "We're open and democratic and we believe in looking at the evidence and putting together the evidence. We will consider it, think about it and hear each other's opinions and that's the way we do that in the Liberal Democrats... This is the way democracy works, and the way it works in a democratic party."

6. Talk less about principled points, more about everyday concerns

Clegg has repeatedly said that he will take the principled stance over the popular one on issues such as Europe and foreign aid. Some activists would rather he avoided moral high-ground issues and started concentrating more on areas like jobs and the cost of living.Eyebrows were certainly raised when he chose foreign aid and FGM as the subject of his first speech after the elections. Others think Clegg should not just shut up about unpopular issues, but shut up altogether and give some more airspace to more centre-left MPs such as Tim Farron, Simon Hughes and Norman Baker. With his LBC 97.3 Radio show, monthly press conferences and one-on-one debates with Nigel Farage, the feeling is that he may have been over-exposed. One Lib Dem summed it up as: "He used to be our greatest electoral asset, but now he's our greatest liability."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rowena Mason, for The Guardian on Friday 30th May 2014 20.09 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010