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The Liberal Democrat Leadership Race Isn't Even Subtle Anymore

07/10/2014 11:49 BST | Updated 07/12/2014 10:59 GMT
Oli Scarff via Getty Images

Liberal Democrats in Glasgow are demob happy. Not because they are pleased to be languishing at 7% in the polls, but because it's too late to do anything about it.

Previous party conferences saw activists, MPs and strategists agonise over how to reverse the downward trend. But now, with just eight months to go until the election, thoughts have moved to 8 May, 2015 - the day after polling day.

Many Lib Dems now casually predict that, unless the electoral stars align in the most fortuitous of ways for the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg will be toast once the results come in. And the beauty parade of potential successors is not even subtle anymore.

The Huffington Post understands that the party's internal polling suggest it will cling on to 30 MPs. Which, considering the party's national poll rating, would be a pretty good result. It would give the parliamentary party enough clout to remain legitimate kingmakers in the event of a hung parliament, but it is also enough MPs from which to rebuild from the backbenches.

Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, Tim Farron, Ed Davey, Jo Swinson, Norman Lamb and Jeremy Browne are all names seen to be in the mix. Much depends on the outcome of the election. A Lib-Lab deal, a Lib-Con deal or opposition will heavily influence what the party wants and needs in a leader.

The formal campaign has yet to begin of course. But behind the scenes Alexander offered one Lib Dem operative a job in his nascent campaign, only to be turned down. And MPs are now publicly approaching contenders in Glasgow to let them know they are on board. One sidled up to a likely leadership candidate and said with a wink, "I'm in". The conference fringe is awash with 'in conversation' events featuring the frontrunners. And aides scrutinise the number of standing ovations, if any, their rivals' bosses receive when speaking from the main conference stage.

The answers to the inevitable "do you want to be leader" question are also now equally unsubtle. Alexander, when asked yesterday by The Independent's Steve Richards whether he wanted to be leader one day, gave a long reply.

"I do hope Nick Clegg goes on for many years and generally my approach to these things is to deal with issues and situations as they arise. I've got enough to worry about, about the British economy, as chief secretary, making the sure the party gets its message across about the economy, making sure we win a sufficient number of seats," he said.

"I enjoy playing a leading role in our party and a leading role in government. So if I have the opportunity to continue to do that in whatever capacity in future then, yes of course I would like to. But a lot of bridges to be crossed between here and there an right now all of my mental space is devoted to trying to solve the problems of now."

Buried in the middle of that qualified reply was the overlooked, "yes, of course".