UK Politics

Is this Nick Clegg's final election?

Nick Clegg
Image caption Nick Clegg acknowledges the applause at the Lib Dem spring conference

Nick Clegg is preparing to fight his final general election, many of his senior colleagues believe.

Several MPs have told me there is an unspoken assumption that he will stand down as Liberal Democrat leader in the next Parliament - whatever the result in May.

While Lib Dems are fighting for their political lives in constituencies, they are thinking hard about life after Clegg.

Their leader's career could end with defeat in his Sheffield Hallam seat, of course, or in resignation after a terrible election performance.

But even if he manages to prove the polls wrong - as he insists is possible - it would be very natural for him to stand down in 2017, one senior MP says.

It is widely thought he has not asked his wife Miriam to endure more than two general elections, another insists.

Explicit ambitions

Clegg's aides dismiss such talk - he intends to be the leader through the whole of the next Parliament they say.

That is not what plenty of his colleagues expect though, and several are positioning themselves to fight to replace him.

They eye left-leaning Tim Farron with suspicion.

Two campaigns to be the party's president, one successful, have given him much more contact with members - who will elect the new leader - than any of his rivals.

He gets a lot of press.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Tim Farron has been putting in the leadership groundwork, colleagues say

MPs use almost identical terms to describe him criss-crossing the country eating rubbery chicken at meals with activists, who he showers with praise.

Some are dismissive - Farron is a good campaigner they say, but "not cerebral". Others use more forthright terms to dismiss his abilities.

The party's former leader Lord Ashdown told 5 Live: "Tim's a very able guy but at the moment judgement is not his strong suit."

His rivals, like the health minister Norman Lamb, are growing increasingly explicit about their ambitions.

If there is a contest, the energy secretary Ed Davey will want to stand, and he too has backers.

Those who are not talking about life after Clegg in public worry they too should give interviews for fear of not being regarded as a contender.

Who else? Jo Swinson, equalities minister, should also be a candidate one well-respected figure tells me, provided she is still an MP after the election.

Lib Dems suspect Treasury minister Danny Alexander of harbouring leadership ambitions, but he too faces a tough fight to hold his seat and many in the party regard him as having grown far too close to the Chancellor George Osborne.

A definitive list is hard to complete though because Lib Dems only need the support of 10% of the party's MPs to stand.

If the general election goes as badly as the polls suggest a would-be leader could comfortably fit the necessary supporters in a cosy phone box.

It could be a crowded contest.

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