The Decline and Fall of Nick Clegg, and Why he Can Not be Replaced

28/05/2014 13:13 BST | Updated 27/07/2014 10:59 BST

There are few people in the country who could have had a worse weekend than Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. The party was annihilated all across the UK, losing hundreds of its councillors and all but one of its MEPs.

It is hard to do justice to just how bad the local and European election results were for the Liberal Democrats. The party's vote share was reduced to a mere 7%, as it fell into fifth place behind the Green Party, and have even caused one MP to join the increasing chorus of members calling for Clegg to resign.

The results really were terrible, but they didn't come out of the blue.

The 2011 Scottish Parliament elections were the first electoral test for the coalition and should have set the first alarm bells ringing. That night the Conservative vote fell by an unwelcome 3%, however its junior partner fared far worse, losing two thirds of its representation. The following year they were reduced to only two members on the London Assembly, and in every subsequent election the party has gone on to lose scores of councillors and plummeted to new depths.

Many say that the problem is Clegg himself. He is widely regarded to have been beaten in both of his high profile debates with UKIP leader Nigel Farage, and his half apology over student fees will go down as a defining moment in his inglorious and unpopular tenure as Deputy Prime Minister.

However, in his first interview since the results, Clegg has taken on his critics by ruling out his resignation, saying, "If I thought that anything would be really solved, any of our real dilemmas would be addressed by changing leadership, changing strategy, changing approaches, bailing out now, changing direction, then I wouldn't hesitate advocating it."

With approval ratings at -49% there is certainly a compelling case for him to consider his future. However, I am actually inclined to sympathise with his position. The problem is not so much him as the message he is selling and the U-turns and policies that he has presided over. Anyone seeking to replace him would also have to be looking to end the coalition government, and no party minister or bigwig has come close to suggesting that.

There is a myth being propagated by many in the party, such as its President Tim Farron, that last week's results were the result of daring to 'take on UKIP'. However the theory can only stand if the last few weeks are viewed in isolation from the party's political trajectory since the formation of the Coalition. Support for the party fell in half between 2010-11 and has never really picked-up since then. Even in the current climate, support for the EU is still around 50%, which considerably outstrips that of the Liberal Democrats.

The other explanation, being put forward by Vince Cable, among others, is that the party is suffering due to the fact it's in government and having to take 'tough decisions in the national interest.' However, the Tories are not receiving the same kicking. On the contrary their polling has stood at a relatively consistent level of around one third for the last two years. There have been short-term fluctuations in the party's fortunes, but not on any scale comparable to that of Clegg's party.

If Clegg was to resign then would the problem go away? Almost certainly not. The problem is that, unlike mainstream Tory voters, Liberal Democrat voters feel betrayed by the coalition. The entire party has been tainted and damaged to such a degree that the problem has become far greater than any one man or his cabinet.

The latest polling suggests that under Vince Cable or Danny Alexander the party could do 'marginally better'. However, both have played leading roles in the coalition government and are just as answerable for all of the 'unpopular decisions' the party has supported and the policies that it has helped to introduce. Any change would be merely cosmetic and could justifiably be seen as an act of political cowardice. The idea of either man being able to convincingly disassociate the party from the government they have been a staple part of is wishful thinking.

In less than a year the voters will pass their final verdict on this government. With polls suggesting a tight election between Labour and Conservatives we may yet see the return of two party politics. The only hope for the Liberal Democrats will be that they can cling on to a portion of the seats they already hold and wrestle some kind of diminished and resented influence.

With the rise of UKIP being fuelled by protest votes and those that normally stay at home, Clegg be thanking his lucky stars that he has never achieved his ideological dream of proportional representation. Ironically the one thing that may save the party from electoral oblivion could be the same undemocratic voting system that it has campaigned against for decades. Otherwise, with the rise of UKIP and the Green Party, it may not even be in a position to cling to its dubious and increasingly contested title as Britain's third party.