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What happens if Nick Clegg resigns?

By Peter Hoskin
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Clegg on TV

I’m not saying that Nick Clegg will resign. Nor that the allegations surrounding Lord Rennard and his party, as dispiriting as they are, necessarily yet warrant a resignation. But the past week has certainly raised the prospect of blood further down the tracks. Mr Clegg’s appearance on LBC radio this morning didn’t create the impression of a man who is in control of his own defence – let alone of his own destiny.   

So what would happen if he did resign? The first point to make is that it would, most likely, fray the ties that bind the Coalition together. Relations between the Tory and Lib Dem leaderships may no longer be all roses and chocolates, as they were at the start of this Government, but Mr Clegg is still – as I’ve written before – a natural ally for David Cameron. He remains one of the most effective advocates of coalition itself, and of this Coalition’s policies. He remains a venomous critic of Labour and of their policies. He is an adhesive helping the whole thing stick together.

When it comes to other senior Lib Dems, something similar could be said of Danny Alexander and David Laws. Norman Lamb, too, is someone who might do easy business with the Tories. And perhaps, to a much lesser extent, there are Ed Davey and Jo Swinson.

But would any of these succeed Mr Clegg in a leadership election? There are reasons to think not. Danny Alexander isn’t obvious party leader material, and, besides, he is likely to lose his seat at the next election. David Laws’s side-parted, pin-striped brand of Lib Demmery may be too much for the party membership to stomach, especially when he has his own past scandal hanging over him. Norman Lamb is tainted by close association with Mr Clegg, even if he wants the job. And as for Ed Davey, he could reckon – although this is complete speculation on my part – that his time is in the future, particularly when the Lib Dems are plumbing around 10 per cent in opinion polls. Jo Swinson might have the luxury of making a similar calculation if she emerges from the Lord Rennard row relatively unscathed.

Which really only leaves Vince Cable and Tim Farron – with Mr Cable’s name in bold and underlined. The Business Secretary may not be especially popular with his parliamentary colleagues, but he is more or less popular with the public – and if you’re a Lib Dem MP sweating on holding your seat in 2015, that counts for quite a lot. And he ticks several other boxes, too: a greying, high-ranking minister who appeals to his party’s red, red heart as much as to its head. He’d be the immediate favourite to ascend to the throne, should Mr Clegg leave it unoccupied.

Would the Tory leadership much care if Mr Cable became Lib Dem leader? Here – and this is the second point that ought to be made – much comes down to timing. If the Business Secretary took over in the next few weeks, then I suspect panic would abound. The Coalition was, after all, founded on the idea of stability – and, although there’s the possibility that he might play nicely, Mr Cable does at least threaten that idea. This is a man who texts in praise of Ed Miliband and who sets himself in opposition to Downing Street with metronomic regularity. The important discussions surrounding the Spending Review would probably become even more fractious. We’d face the grim prospect of two years of heightened bickering, bad temper and governmental inertia.  

That is, of course, if parliamentarians would countenance two years of such a situation. The introduction of Fixed-term Parliaments means that No.10 cannot just unilaterally call a general election, but there are mechanisms – neatly explained by Mark Pack here – by which Parliament can either force one or just establish a new Government altogether. As it happens, I doubt both that these mechanisms will be tested and that they will succeed if they are. But the possibility would certainly arise in the event of an unstable Coalition.

But what if Cable were to take power much closer to the election? Not only would this avoid many of the problems mentioned above – the Spending Review would be written, the slog would not be so long, differentiation would already have begun in earnest – but the Tory leadership could even regard it as an electoral boon. As Tim has written before, there’s an idea that a Cable leadership would make a Tory majority more likely, as he may suck left-leaning voters away from Labour and towards the Lib Dems.

Of course, that strategy has a majority as its end. What Mr Cable would mean for Tory hopes in the event of another hung parliament is another matter entirely.