As the date for the dissolution of Parliament approaches, marking just under six weeks until the general election, the shape of the campaign is finally coming into view. The format of the debates has been outlined, the campaign messages are becoming clearer, and the grassroots campaigns are well underway.
But still, it’s almost impossible to foretell what will actually become of the parties after May 7 – or of their leaders.
Questions of leadership have been put back at the forefront by David Cameron’s announcement that he will not seek a third term in government if re-elected. Ed Miliband has never been able to fully stamp out speculation over the safety of his position. And the future of the Liberal Democrats’ leader, as ever, is a fraught question indeed.
No-one could reasonably dismiss Nick Clegg’s remarkable resilience at the helm. Whereas 2010’s spasm of “Cleggmania” put his name on the lips of every journalist, after entering into coalition Clegg oversaw a collapse in the party’s polling numbers. His own personal poll ratings also went into steep decline.
Despite all this, Clegg has managed to avoid any serious leadership challenge. He ably saw off the one major reported coup attempt and besides this has seen only fairly timid misgivings raised; often within party conference season, where gossip and speculation are to be expected.
In the wake of what’s set to be a brutal election, though, the question of Clegg’s leadership – or replacement – will inevitably top the Lib Dems’ agenda.
On to the next one?
Indeed, in 2014 it was reported that there was a working assumption that Clegg would have to stand down if the election results were as bad as many polls have indicated.
With current predictions indicating the loss of about 33 seats, this prediction is likely to be put into effect.
Whether Clegg resigns, is challenged, or loses his seat as some have predicted (unlikely given the size of Clegg’s majority), the question of leadership will inevitably top the Liberal Democrats’ post-election agenda.
A glance at any political betting site throws up a range of familiar names in the running: Tim Farron, Danny Alexander, Vince Cable, David Laws and Jo Swinson. Many of them now have experience in government and are to some extent recognised by the electorate, making them credible and even attractive.
But if Clegg goes down, the Liberal Democrats will need to think carefully as they choose a successor. Much of the public’s disaffection with the party springs from the perception that it has betrayed its socially liberal identity and pandered to the Tories’ austere economism. Whether he likes it or not, Clegg has come to embody an acceptance of this course of action and set of ideas.
For many in the party it this perspective that needs to change. For them, if the party wants to rebuild its message and appeal post-2015, it will need a more socially liberal candidate, such as Tim Farron, who can steer the party’s identity back in a social democratic direction.
Of course, it may not come to that. If Clegg manages to significantly outperform the worst predictions for the party’s general election performance, he may in the process be able to redeem his own performance in government and his project of pulling the party centrewards.
If he scrapes back in, it will be all the more unclear who will replace him and when – and what direction the party will take as it try to rebuilds its shattered base.