LONDON : The leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrat party, Nick Clegg, came under pressure on Sunday to step down after two of his own lawmakers added their voices to activist calls for him to quit because of big losses in local elections last week.
The party, the junior partner in a coalition with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, lost more than 300 seats in Thursday’s vote and is expected to also do badly when European election results are published on Sunday.
Media reports said 12 of the party’s 56 lawmakers were preparing to publicly call for Clegg to resign, something he repeatedly ruled out before the vote when asked if he would step down in the event of heavy losses.
The Liberal Democrats have styled themselves as Britain’s most pro-European party, but polling shows the public thought Clegg lost two high profile TV debates on Europe with the leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) earlier this year.
Some supporters also accuse him of being too politically close to Cameron.
If Clegg did step down or was ousted it would stoke fears that the government could be destabilised a year before the next national election. Depending on who replaced him, it could see the Conservatives opt to govern alone as a minority government.
In an open letter to Clegg published online on Friday, activists asked him to stand down to allow the party to choose a new leader before next year’s national election in which it is forecast to lose many of its parliamentary seats.
“We consider it vital that at the 2015 general election the party should be led by someone who will receive a fair hearing about our achievements and ambitions for the future,” they said.
“It is clear to us that this person is not you, as the loss of so many of our hard working councillors highlights.”
The letter had attracted more than 200 signatures by Sunday. Signatories included current and former parliamentary candidates as well as local councillors and ex-lawmakers.
John Pugh, a LibDem lawmaker, told the Sunday Times he felt Clegg’s position should not be protected. “Although I admire enormously Nick’s bravery, it does not follow that because the captain should go down with the ship, that the ship has to go down with the captain,” he said.
Describing Clegg’s strategy as “a form of slow party suicide”, he said more than a dozen lawmakers were questioning Clegg’s future as leader and as deputy prime minister.
Another LibDem MP, Adrian Sanders, agreed. “The problem is the messenger,” he said. “Very few people say it’s the message.”
Many activists were disappointed in 2010 when the left-leaning party chose to enter a coalition with the right-leaning Conservatives. They were further angered when Clegg, in government, reneged on a promise to oppose student tuition fees.
Possible candidates to succeed him include Vince Cable, the business secretary, Tim Farron, the party’s president, and Danny Alexander, the second most powerful minister in the finance ministry.
Farron on Sunday backed Clegg as did Paddy Ashdown, a former party leader.
“It would be absolutely foolish for us as a party to turn in on ourselves,” Farron told BBC TV.
“What has separated the Liberal Democrats from the Conservatives these last four years is whilst the Conservatives have been like cats in a sack fighting with each other the Liberal Democrats have stood united. That is what we will continue to do.”