|Cassius Cable and Praetorian Davey - yond men hath a lean and hungry look!|
Clegg's personal ratings are at an all-time low and the party's have plunged by two-thirds since the 2010 election - today, two opinion polls (Opinium & Survations) have them on just 8% and 10% of popular support, in fourth place nationally behind the UK Independence Party - others are a little kinder, but still show UKIP breathing down the Lib Dems necks close enough to raise the hackles of fear. With hundreds of councillors culled at the local elections last May and more losses likely in spring 2013, Clegg's own position is increasingly rumoured to be at risk, at least in the longer-run. As leading pollster Peter Kellner of YouGov has warned, on current trends, the party will lose 80% of its MPs in the 2015 election.
For now, the party rank-and-file have shown an almost lemming-like willingness to follow Clegg over the cliff, but cracks are beginning to show as the leader's desperate strategy of trying to emphasise differences with his Tory partners fails to make any electoral impact. Likewise his attempt to apologise for voting to raise student fees in full defiance of a pledge to vote against any such thing (note, "vote against" - whether in Government or not) has fallen on deaf ears.
Mr Clegg is facing two potential challengers - interestingly both from former SDP members who may be seen to represent a slightly less full-on charge to the right by Clegg and his Orange Book ally David Laws (now returned to the Cabinet table in a rather odd arrangement as he is not a full-member).
The first is the Secretary of State for Business and Enterprise, Vince Cable. Cable, a former apologist for the Shell Oil company, has enacted some pretty right wing changes to employment law while in office, but he still laughingly tries to pass himself off as the "Marx of the Lib Dems" - though he could do with clarifying whether he means Karl or Groucho. His hubris is boundless, and fuelled by a finding that Lib Dem ratings could soar to as high as..12%!, he has told the Sunday Times that he does not rule out being leader of the party - one day. Soon, we might imagine him whisper under his impatient breath.
The other rumoured challenger is Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary. He is closer to Clegg politically, but views himself as a credible challenger to Cable. The Mail on Sunday produced an article today covering his ambitions to succeed Clegg. On Channel 4 News this evening, he hotly denied the article's veracity - he is, he claimed "one of the Praetorian Guard surrounding Nick Clegg".
Now, Mr Davey could either be being opaquely clever here or alternatively betraying his lack of historical knowledge: for over two and a half centuries, the Praetorians were the bodyguards of the Roman Emperors. So he might be suggesting that he would take a political bullet for Emperor Cleggie, so deep is his belief in him. Alternatively, given the Praetorians' propensity for bumping off Emperors (on one occasion even putting the throne up for auction), he could instead be giving a coded signal that he may bury the knife in Caesar's shoulder-blades any day soon. Notably, when invited several times by the C4 interviewer, Davey repeatedly avoided saying "No" to the question of whether he wants to be leader.
Either way, the third-going-on-fourth party, faces a dismal time ahead - yet doggedly still clinging to the belief that nuanced changes to party pronouncements (the latest being that parents can use their pensions towards their kids mortgages!) will somehow win their lost legions of followers back. If Vince Cable is all their "left-wing" has to offer, they may as well shut up shop and follow their National Liberal ancestors in the smothering bosom of their Tory Masters.
A third candidate for the leadership is rumoured to be Lurcio, currently the MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale. Oh don't ye titter!