If you feel sorry for Nick Clegg, spare a thought for his poor rivals. With personal poll ratings plumbing uncharted depths for a Liberal Democrat leader, one might assume ambitious Padawans would emerge, glistening with promise, into the political limelight. Not so much.
Widely tipped as a future leader of his party, David Laws looked to be the surprise star of the coalition before he was forced to resign after just 17 days. Nick Clegg’s fellow Orange Book-er is now hobbled with a seven-day suspension from Parliament just as many Lib Dems hoped his return might have provided badly-needed new impetus to the Lib Dem attack.
And who was the bookies’ favourite to succeed Clegg with the former Chief Treasury Secretary on sabbatical? Step forward Chris Huhne, who, perhaps in some form of masochistic homage to Laws, has celebrated the coalition’s one year anniversary with a floundering response to serious allegations of fraud.
Those who would not benefit directly from undermining the leadership, or who do so on ideological grounds, don’t seem to fare any better. After writing to Nick Clegg accusing him of “abandoning” the welfare state and presiding over a “dictatorship of the party by 20 Lib Dem ministers”, Mike Hancock was rightly feted as the Liberal Democrat “most likely to defect to Labour”. But the Pompey MP now stands a discredited figure, embroiled in an espionage scandal and derided as “handycock” in the less salubrious reaches of the blogosphere.
If Team Miliband had ever entertained the prospect of Hancock crossing the floor, the (political) fallout from the expulsion of his researcher Ekaterina Paderina at the behest of MI5 has made the Russophile MP to defections what Chernobyl was to the Ukrainian tourist industry in the late eighties.
But it seems the men of letters had still not learned their lesson and in February the leader of Liberal Democrats in local government, LGA vice-chair Richard Kemp, coordinated a note to the Times from 90 prominent councillors. The broadside, which castigated the government for “constantly chastising and denigrating local authorities through the media”, led Kemp to the sobering experience of having his family’s personal finances raked over by the right-wing press.
Clegg may have lost his halo of April 2010, but could he still be protected by some higher power? The answer may lie in the future fortunes of Tim Farron, a figure of not inconsiderable previous interest to the tweeting classes. The Westmorland and Lonsdale MP is no advert for dentistry but may yet emerge as a future challenger for the leadership. One imagines Clegg’s lieutenants might have one or two thoughts on the matter.