BBC news have announced that Lord Oakeshott has resigned from the Liberal Democrat party. This is actually major news for two reasons:
1. Oakeshott has been a prominent member since the SDP days
2. He has voiced what many grassroots members are thinking
Basically, Oakeshott believes that Clegg has both taken the party in the wrong direction, and is so unpopular that they will be punished heavily for it in next year’s Westminster elections.
Is he right?
Short answer, yes. Clegg personally fronted the campaign for the Euro 2014 elections. The Lib Dems were the only party to portray themselves as pro-Europe (“the party of IN”) and they won less than 7% of the vote. Popular opinion on Europe is difficult to gauge and fluctuates, but assuming a roughly 50/50 split would mean there were 43% of voters who were pro-EU but did not vote Lib Dem.
So, is the party unpopular as well as Clegg or because of Clegg? I would plump for the latter. Clegg represents the Rose Garden Deal, conceding privatization of the NHS, forming a pact with the Tories, and basically has become shorthand for betraying long-term principles for short-term gain. Rightly or wrongly, his name is toxic, and was even left off the leaflets in some regions in this month’s elections where local party members felt they had more chance of winning votes without him.
But with all that said, Oakeshott has, in my opinion, made an error. The Clegg debacle must be allowed to run its course. The Lib Dems will get hammered in the 2015 election. At that point, Clegg will resign of his own volition, a leadership contest will be triggered and then it will be the right time to discuss the direction of the party. It can lick its wounds, do some serious soul-searching, and reform its principles.
The coalition has another year to run, and Clegg is committed to seeing it through. By this stage, he probably wants out as much as Oakeshott wants him out, but for the sake of the party he must postpone falling on his sword until next year.