In a speech to tearful party workers and grandees at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, the outgoing deputy prime minister warned that the politics of “fear and grievance” had won while liberalism had lost.
A red-eyed Clegg, who was given a standing ovation as he entered the room, said: “I always expected this election to be exceptionally difficult for the Liberal Democrats, given the heavy responsibilities we’ve had to bear in government in the most challenging of circumstances. But clearly results have been immeasurably more crushing and unkind than I could ever have feared. For that, of course, I must take responsibility and therefore I announce I will be resigning as leader of the Liberal Democrats.”
Clegg announced his resignation after presiding over the worst setback to the Liberal Democrats since the party was founded in 1988 in the wake of the collapse of the SDP-Liberal Alliance. A series of Lib Dem heavyweights, including the business secretary, Vince Cable, the Treasury chief secretary, Danny Alexander, the former leader Charles Kennedy and the justice minister, Simon Hughes, were felled by voters who appeared not to have forgiven the party for its U-turn on university tuition fees.
The outgoing deputy prime minister warned that David Cameron had taken Britain to a “perilous” point in its history by stoking up divisions within the UK and endangering its membership of the EU.
In his speech, watched by grandees such as the former party leader Lord Ashdown – Clegg’s original mentor – he said: “It is clear that in constituency after constituency north of the border, the beguiling appeal of Scottish nationalism has swept all before it, and south of the border a fear of what that means for the United Kingdom has strengthened English conservatism too. This now brings our country to a very perilous point in our history where grievance and fear combine to drive our different communities apart.
“I hope that our leaders across the United Kingdom realise the disastrous consequences for our way of life and the integrity of the United Kingdom if they continue to appeal to grievance rather than generosity, and fear rather than hope.”
Clegg warned that the result showed that liberalism was losing out to the politics of fear. “It is of course too early to give a considered account of why we have suffered the catastrophic losses we have and the party will have to reflect on these in the time ahead,” he said. “One thing it seems to me is clear: liberalism here, as well as across Europe, is not faring well against the politics of fear.”
But Clegg, who described the election result as “the most crushing blow to the Liberal Democrats since our party was founded”, said he would be proud that the Lib Dems had entered government for the first time since the second world war, and hailed its achievements in boosting schools funding and giving gay people the chance to marry.
“If our losses today are part-payment for every family that is more secure because of a job we helped to create, every person with depression who is treated with a compassion they deserve, every child who does a little better in school, every apprentice with a long and rewarding career to look forward to, every gay couple who know that their love is worth no less than anyone else’s, and every pensioner with a little more freedom and dignity in retirement, then I hope at least our losses can be endured with a little selfless dignity too.
“We will never know how many lives we changed for the better because we had the courage to step up at a time of crisis. But we have done something that cannot be undone – because there can be no doubt we leave government with Britain a far stronger, fairer, greener and more liberal country than it was five years ago.
“However unforgiving the judgment has been of the Liberal Democrats in the ballot box, I believe the history books will judge our party kindly for the service we sought to provide to the nation at a time of great economic difficulty, and for the policies and values which we brought to bear in government – opportunity, fairness and liberty – which I believe will stand the test of time.”
In total, the party is currently down by 47 seats to eight MPs. This severely narrows the field of candidates to take over from Clegg, but the main contenders are likely to be Tim Farron, the former party president, Norman Lamb, a health minister, and potentially Alistair Carmichael, the Scottish secretary, who was the only of the party’s MPs to hold on in Scotland.
This article was written by Nicholas Watt chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Friday 8th May 2015 12.54 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010