A senior Westcountry Liberal Democrat last night declared the time had come for the party’s MPs to “speak out” if they shared growing doubts about Nick Clegg’s leadership.
Andrew Bridgwater, vice chairman of the Lib Dem regional group for Devon and Cornwall, said in his view Mr Clegg should make way for Business Secretary Vince Cable.
He said it was the only way to win back discontented voters before the election.
His comments came after Torbay Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders said publicly that Mr Clegg needed to stop “bumbling along” and should get a grip on the party.
They are the latest of a number of high-profile party figures in the past week to clamour for change at the highest level as the Lib Dems struggle to improve on a poor standing in the opinion polls.
Yesterday, Westcountry MPs Andrew George in West Cornwall and Nick Harvey in North Devon stood by their leader.
Mr Bridgwater, who is also chairman of the Lib Dem
Education Association, said it was harder for serving MPs to “put their heads above the parapet”.
He urged them to do so, however, insisting the time had come.
He emphasised that he was expressing personal views, but revealed he was reflecting what he was hearing from voters. He said: “The doorsteps are full of people who are asking what’s going on, and what’s the problem with Nick Clegg?”
He said the leader had failed to temper the influence of far-right Conservatives on issues including an extra runway at Heathrow, reform of the House of Lords and the reduction of the top rate of income tax.
He said: “Vince Cable has been so on the ball and right about what we need to do about the economy ever since the middle of the last decade.
“If he was in a leadership position, he would knock some sense into the growing gulf between policy and reality which has opened up in the Coalition.”
But Mr Cable told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend that he had no criticisms of Mr Clegg.
“It is inevitable in the mid-term of parliament when party popularities wane, when difficult decisions are being made. That’s happened many times before.
“The Tories are doing it – David Cameron has come under a lot of fire in the last few weeks – Nick Clegg has got the same.”
He added: “He’s sufficiently resilient to ride through this, I think.”
But the remarks come as a YouGov poll showed that 47 per cent of Lib Dem voters think the party would do better if they ditched Clegg before the election.
The latest bout of speculation was triggered when Mr Cable’s close ally, the former treasury spokesman Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, publicly warned last week that the party may need a change of “management and strategy” if it is to stand any chance of winning the next general election.
Over, the weekend a series of senior party figures came out to warn that the Deputy Prime Minister was not “indispensable”.
Mr Sanders, a veteran Lib Dem MP, told The Sunday Times that Mr Clegg needed to stop “just bumbling along worrying about the future” and to take action to rebuild support in the party.
He said: “He needs to win people over when the general reaction is to recoil from the ideas he is putting forward.
“He is only as good as the advice he receives. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who have never won an election in their lives. He needs to surround himself with winners.”
Meanwhile, the Lib Dem peer, Lord Smith of Clifton, said Clegg was “just a cork bobbing on the waves” with “no strategic vision at all”.
“It’s not as if Clegg is indispensable. Vince Cable possesses the appeal and the credibility to lead the Liberal Democrats into the next election,” he was quoted as saying.
But former party leader Sir Menzies Campbell endorsed his successor’s continued leadership, saying all parties were experiencing similar September clamouring.
“The truth is coalitions are like political parties, because you have differing opinions at
different times,” he said.