Unless something dramatic happens between now and election day it appears as if we are in for a hung parliament. Unlike the previous one, there will be no obvious match between the parties; a right-of-centre coalition of the type we have enjoyed/endured (delete as applicable) will be difficult to achieve given the culling of Lib Dem seats. What is more likely is either a grand coalition of the left, or a minority Labour government lurching from vote to vote on the goodwill of SNP, Plaid, Green and Lib Dem votes.
Whichever way the election goes, leaders that are not deemed winners are for the chop. The Tories are sharpening their knives ready to take out Cameron, a dethroning they have been dreaming of for years. They held back from realising this desire due to the delusion that he could easily defeat Miliband and Cameron’s failure to do so has made Miliband’s position stronger than it was a month or so ago. However, a last minute swing to the Conservatives could set back the recent good-will Miliband’s garnered within his party, and if the Tories managed to form a government he too would be finished. Even the smaller party leaders such as Farage and Bennett face potential peril. Both have enjoyed an almost perfect scenario for minor parties to have any hope of breaking through in the First-Past-The-Post system. If they fail to capitalise, questions will be asked as to how they were allowed to blow it.
But the most likely to fall is the most hated man in British politics Nick Clegg. Since going into coalition with their arch-enemy, the party’s ratings have plummeted. Estimates range between the Lib-Dems returning 20 and 30 seats (down from 56) though Lib Dems usually face an election day slump as voters flee back to the safety of the two main parties, in which case they may sink lower than that. With as few as 25 MPs the party won’t have enough to negotiate a coalition with the Conservatives, nor an exclusive one with Labour. Instead they will be merely one of many small parties doing vote by vote deals.
With a reduced presence, a hammering in the polls, and a left leaning parliament, it makes sense for Clegg to go, right? Consistently he’s shown to be a drag on the Lib Dem ticket, with candidates leaving him off their election material. It would only be right for him to step down and leave the party in the hands of someone like Vince Cable or Tim Farron, both hailing from the Social-Democratic wing of the party and better placed to negotiate with Labour.
I put the alternative to you, however: this approach would be a mistake. Whilst ditching Clegg would give the Lib Dems quick east boost in the opinion polls, a long term strategy might be worth considering:
If Miliband makes it into Number 10, Cameron is bound to resign his party’s leadership. Similarly, other familiar faces of the current campaign may also vanish; if Farage fails to win his seat, he may well resign leadership and hand over the reins to Douglas Carswell; if the Greens fail to take anything other than Brighton Pavilion they might turn back to the eminently more media-savvy Caroline Lucas.
These fresh faces (in terms of leadership – not actual freshness) would be in for a bumpy parliament. Whether successful or not, a grand informal coalition of the left would soon turn bitter as each side struggles for influence. The public are unlikely to support it for long.
Which brings us back to the question of Nick Clegg’s fate. In such a tumultuous parliament a party leader well-known to the public and experienced in government will be of the upmost importance. With Cameron gone, Clegg would represent and speak up for the previous government. Right now this suggestion would be the last thing the party membership would like, but after a year or so of failed votes and indecisive leadership the memory of the Liberal-Conservative coalition might well be a vote winner. Clegg reminding the public of economic growth and stability might well work, whereas Tim Farron, known only to political junkies, won’t even get the air-time.
Eventually Clegg will need to go, but to dump him unceremoniously in the wake of a bad election result would be for the party to run to the left and turn its back on what it has managed to achieve in government. Like it or not, the Lib Dems have become a centrist party, not a party of the hard-left. It can keep Clegg and remain the sensible voice of the centre or they can go into a full-blown rout. I fear to do the latter would mean that when the public grow tired of Labour’s minority they wouldn’t have the Lib Dems to turn to for stable pragmatic government; instead they will identify them with haphazard left-wing bartering, or worse, something not worth considering at all.