POLITICS
04/02/2015 09:51 GMT | Updated 04/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Lib Dem President Says Party Has 'Quite A Few Good People' To Replace Nick Clegg

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[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] Baroness Sal Brinton (Lib Dem) talk to the protesters outside Parliament

So. Was it worth it? "Yes," Baroness Sal Brinton, concludes after a noticeable pause. "In the longer term."

The new president of the Lib Dems is reflecting on the party's five years in coalition. The achievements. And the political price paid. "What we hadn’t understood was how the impact of being the junior partner in collation would be on us publicly and that is a hard thing to take. That is why I was hesitant," she says.

With fewer than three months to go until the election, the party is hovering at around 8% in the polls and is likely to lose a substantial number of its 57 MPs. Speaking to The Huffington Post in the party's Westminster HQ, Brinton maintains that morale is higher than outsiders might think. "The party is in a much stronger position than you would believe either from our position in the polls or the general pundits," she says.

"I've been very encouraged. Over the last year I have been going around a lot of our local parties, including seats where we either hold the seat or where we are a very close second, they are in a much stronger position than is indicated by the polls."

She adds: "I think it's fair to say most people recognise, because of what happens in Europe, that the junior partner in a coalition government always gets penalised. I think obviously it has been hard to take, the first time it happens to you."

With another hung parliament seen as the likely outcome of the election, another chance at power is possible for the party. A second five year deal would be be presented in more business-like terms, Brinton indicates. Coalitions, she argues, are "not a marriage". The peer insists of the deal with the Tories: "Everyone said 'oh it’s a romance'. No it wasn’t. It was always a contract."

Given the pain of coalition, would Lib Dem members really vote for it again, if given the chance? "Opposition is easy. Lib Dems who believe in the philosophy of what the party stands for are pleased we have been able to put things into government that area really distinctively liberal," Brinton says.

nick clegg tim farron

Brinton also hits out the critics of her party leader. "You get this drop in the polls and a sort of demonization of Nick Clegg which, when you start to get underneath it, people can't articulate any more than that. I'm afraid that’s often a media thing," she says of the deputy prime minister's poor ratings.

Labour, she admits, have been "quite a clever" in convincing people that Clegg "betrayed" students over tuition fees. "Yes, he did sign the pledge. But actually what we did in government was to mitigate the worse excess of the Tories who wanted no cap on fees at all."

Clegg survival and grip on his party machine has been one of the untold stories of the last five years. But there is a widespread belief within the party that he will step down after the election. And Tim Farron, Brinton's predecessor as party president, is seen as the frontrunner to take over the leadership.

"He and I have always got on," Brinton says of Farron. The grassroots favourite will be "difficult to follow", she says, but is clear she wants to make her own stamp on the position of president. "We are in a different time from when he took over four years ago."

"I've got senior management experience. I've got board experience. And I can see how that fits in with a political party in the 21st Century."

Would Farron make a good leader? "Oooh," Brinton grins. "I think we've got quite a few people who would be good leaders. I shall be neutral. Nice try."

Brinton says in any future leadership contest she will ensure the candidates "get round enough that members get their voice heard". She will, she says, encourage them to use "social networks and Snapchat conversations and other things like that for whoever might want, at some point, to stand for the leadership of the party".

Other candidates for the leadership include energy secretary Ed Davey, chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, business secretary Vince Cable and health minister Norman Lamb. Business minister Jo Swinson is the only likely female candidate.

The Lib Dems lack of female MPs is awkward for the party. Brinton insists she is committed to changing that. "There are so few women MPs," she concedes. "We are much better in the Lords. And we were better in the European parliament."

The party has only seven female MPs. And none of the party's MPs are from an ethnic minority. In last May's European elections the party was almost wiped out and now only has one MEP, Catherine Bearder.

Brinton explains: "For women and ethnic minorities we have given ourselves targets and we have done really well. Of the 11 seat where MPs are retiring, five are women. Two are ethnic minorities. And that's increased when you look at the tier of seats where we are 2,000 [votes] away."

Clegg could, of course, have appointed a women to the cabinet. Swinson and Home Office minister Lynne Featherstone were the obvious candidates. "So close," Brinton admits. "I would have liked to see it. Nick and I talk about the representation of women on a regular basis. Miriam [Clegg's wife] and I talk about it too," she says. "We've got some extremely good women ministers and should we be in coalition next time, I really want to see at least one of them in the cabinet."

One problem for the party however is that selecting women candidates may not translate into more female MPs. "If we are not going to increase the number of seats at the next election, or if we are going to go down, we can't be judged on how many women and ethnic minority candidates are elected simply because the tide is going against us," Brinton argues. "We have done our job in terms of the ones selected for the top seats."

The Lord Rennard affair, Brinton admits, did damage the party. "There is no doubt, when there was a lot of coverage of that, it was unhelpful." The party president says she knows all the women who quit the party over the affair and hopes she can "persuade them to come back".

"The women who are joining the party now are seeing very different things in place following he changes that have happened there is no absolutely tolerance of bulling or harassment at all."