Lord Oakeshott has called for Nick Clegg’s removal as leader of the Liberal Democrats before the next general election in order to cuts ties with the Tories before voters go to the ballot.
Speaking on the eve of the party’s conference, the Liberal Democrat peer highlighted Clegg’s poll ratings and his connections with the Conservative Party as reasons why the party should think about replacing him as leader - and soon.
"If we are on 15% we would hold 30 seats, if we are on 17% we would hold 40 seats - and if we are on 13% we would hold 20 seats.... It's very important to maximise our national share of the vote to give our MPs the best chance."
Oakeshott added that the party’s dismal poll ratings showed "no sign of improvement". He said: "Let's be objective; we have to accept that Nick's ratings are very poor and have been for a long time. You've got to be frank that his ratings are down at levels which if you go back were only seen by Mrs Thatcher shortly before she left and Michael Foot. It's nothing personal, you've got to look at the facts.
"You do have to say well 'where are our prospects at the next election if we don't have a major and clear change and detachment from the Conservatives?' and we've got to think about the best way to get that message over."
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Highlighting newspaper polls last summer showing the party would do about 3% or 4% better under another leader he added: "These are things people have to think about given how sensitive the number of our seats will be. It's for the party to decide."
Senior Lib Dem minister David Laws this week insisted the coalition would continue "up to the wire" before the election, but Oakeshott said this could spell electoral ruin for the party. He said: "It's disastrous if we are seen as a tin can tied to the Tories' tail in 2015. We have to move on to developing our own very clear and distinctive Liberal Democrat message for next time.
"It will be very difficult to do that if we are still in Government at the next election. I believe we should disengage well before the next election, sixth months to a year before."
Lib Dem pensions minister Steve Webb acknowledged in the same magazine that the party had "a lot of hard work to do" and "you'd rather the polls were better than they are". But he added: "I've seen us recover from worse than this and incumbency is important. We've got a lot of work to do and we know we've got to get our message across and in coalition it's a unique challenge to be distinctive."
He acknowledged "it ain't gonna be easy" but insisted "morale is remarkably good" in the party.
Clegg acknowledged there were "differences" within the Lib Dems which would be aired at the gathering in Glasgow, but insisted the party remained united. He told LBC 97.3: "Of course, there will be debates and yes, there will be differences. It is a Liberal Democrat party conference, there will be nice old fashioned debates where people disagree with each other but what I hope you'll see is a party coming out of all this actually strong, united and proud of what it's done in government."
Lib Dem sources dismissed Oakeshott's attack. A source close to Clegg said: "No-one should be surprised that Matthew Oakeshott has once again used the media attention of conference season to attack the party leader. His opinion shouldn't surprise anyone."
Another senior Lib Dem source said: "This is a predictable annual occurrence. He last called for Nick Clegg to resign at conference in 2012. You can set your calendar by it. "Having a dig at Nick gives Matthew his occasional moment in the sun."