Nick Clegg is set to face further awkward questions over his leadership of the Liberal Democrats despite seeing off what was widely seen as a coup attempt from within his own party.
The Deputy Prime Minister has endured a bruising week after disastrous local and European election results.
The resignation from the Lib Dems of long-time critic Lord Oakeshott appears to have seen off a leadership challenge although the peer could not resist a parting shot at “disastrous” Mr Clegg.
The Lib Dem leader will also face a potentially tricky situation in dealing with senior colleague Vince Cable, with the Business Secretary being forced to deny involvement in polls Lord Oakeshott ran which indicated the party’s general election performance would improve were Mr Clegg to resign.
But the Deputy Prime Minister will first have to face questions from the public for the first time since last week’s dire election results on his weekly radio phone-in on LBC Radio.
He is likely to face queries about his position in the party after Dr Cable was forced to quell rumours he was involved in Lord Oakeshott’s polling.
Speaking from Chinese capital Beijing, where he is on a trade mission, Dr Cable said last night: “Parties conduct polls all the time at national and local level.
“In this particular case, Lord Oakeshott asked my election campaign manager if we wanted a poll done in my local constituency, we said yes. It was a private, local poll done for general election planning, absolutely nothing to do with national leadership.
“I was aware that he was conducting other polls around the country and I was certainly told in general terms what the trends were, and in one particular case concerning my parliamentary private secretary Tessa Munt from Wells, we sat down and discussed the details with her.
“But I had absolutely no knowledge of, or certainly was not involved in any commissioning of the surveys that were done in Sheffield Hallam and Inverness, and indeed I criticised him very severely yesterday.”
The Business Secretary’s comments followed the emergence of the ICM poll findings from five crucial Lib Dem constituencies in the Guardian earlier this week.
The results indicated the party would fare better in Mr Clegg’s own constituency and those of other senior figures if the Deputy Prime Minister was replaced.
After it emerged that Lord Oakeshott was almost certainly the instigator of the polling, Mr Clegg threatened him with disciplinary action.
The peer quit the party yesterday, lashing out at the “disastrous” Deputy Prime Minister and saying he left the party with a “heavy heart”.
But in resignation, he continued to call for Mr Clegg’s head, saying: “The combined message of these five professional and reputable ICM constituency polls, Nick Clegg’s dire approval ratings year after year in all national polls, and Thursday’s appalling council and European election results is crystal clear: we must change the leader to give Liberal Democrat MPs their best chance to win in 2015.”
Senior Lib Dem MPs rallied around the leader yesterday but dissenting voices remained.
Stephen Tall, co-editor of influential blog Lib Dem Voice, has revealed he was one of the 39% who called for Mr Clegg to resign on a poll run by the website.
Writing on his blog, Mr Tall claimed Mr Clegg was the wrong leader to negotiate any future coalition deal which would be acceptable to Lib Dem members because the previous deal with the Tories will make members suspicious, while a deal with Labour would represent a “complete about-turn”.
Mr Tall wrote: “If Nick Clegg stands down now as party leader, though, he would go out with his head held high. And though it’s unconventional and has risks I see no real reason why Nick couldn’t remain as Deputy Prime Minister through until May 2015, allowing the new party leader to present the party’s manifesto unencumbered by the compromises of Coalition.”
Lib Dem Transport Minister Baroness Kramer defended Dr Cable.
She told BBC Two’s Newsnight: “All I can say is Vince has made a categorical statement, I’m comfortable with that.
“He said that basically (Lord Oakeshott’s) behaviour has been inexcusable.
“As far as I’m concerned he’s doing what he should do, which is he’s in China working for the British economy and state.”