Are the Lib Dems breaking in half?

Open hostility has broken out between the left- and right-wingers. Can Nick Clegg keep the party alive? Emily Hohler reports.

A year ago Nick Clegg looked "sad, heavy and lost", says James Kirkup in The Daily Telegraph. At this week's Lib Dem conference in Glasgow he appears "energised" and "confident". There are various possible reasons: he has no serious rivals for the job (Vince Cable now inspires "derision", not fear); his authority over his "cat-herd of a party is much restored", with the Lib Dems falling into line over nuclear power, tuition fees, income tax and austerity; and most of the dissenters appear to have left.

Actually, Clegg's party is "slowly but surely breaking in half", says Peter Oborne, in the same newspaper. There is "open hostility between the governing wing" and the "generally left-wing party activists and MPs". The departure of former minister Sarah Teather last week was "the most ugly sign yet of the smouldering antagonism felt towards the leadership". This section of the party, as Cable reminded us, feels a "profound personal and political revulsion at giving public endorsement" to Chancellor George Osborne's austerity.

Cable's stance isn't just ideological, says Kirkup. He thinks it's too soon to call an economic recovery and that politically it is better for the Lib Dems to distance themselves from "Conservative exuberance". Clegg and his friends, on the other hand, think the economy is looking up and don't want any political kudos to go exclusively to theTories.

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"You could weep for Vince," says Matthew Norman in The Independent. His about-turn on the economic vote and an "uncharacteristically lukewarm reception for his characteristically acidic platform speech about Tory wickedness, seemed to mark the end of his leadership hopes". Even if the next election produces the Labour-Lib Dem coalition from which Cable has positioned himself to benefit, it's "most unlikely" that his party will elect a man who will by then be 72.

"Don't rule it out," says Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail. True, Cable is being disowned not only by the party leadership, but by some activists (Clegg and Danny Alexander the chief secretary to the Treasury stared at him throughout his speech as a "couple of psychiatrists might observe a problematic patient on day release"), but this "sanctimonious rabble-rouser" isn't a "wholly a busted flush politically".

All the same, it's unlikely he'll be causing Clegg to lose much sleep, says Rachel Sylvester in The Times. Clegg has not only "faced down his internal critics and won", but is arguably in a stronger position than either David Cameron or Ed Miliband. He is "winning admirers by standing against the extremes of left and right" and many of the "non-tribal swing voters" to whom new Labour appealed are still unsure which party to support. They may well vote for Clegg, says Mary Riddell in The Daily Telegraph.

But the party is much reduced, now serving only as "electoral ballast to whichever main party limps ahead". Clegg's survival may "ultimately hasten the demise of a party whose prime object is no longer justice but the pursuit of power at any price".

Emily Hohler

Emily has extensive experience in the world of journalism. She has worked on MoneyWeek for more than 20 years as a former assistant editor and writer. Emily has previously worked on titles including The Times as a Deputy Features Editor, Commissioning Editor at The Independent Sunday Review, The Daily Telegraph, and she spent three years at women's lifestyle magazine Marie Claire as a features writer for three years, early on in her career. 

On MoneyWeek, Emily’s coverage includes Brexit and global markets such as Russia and China. Aside from her writing, Emily is a Nutritional Therapist and she runs her own business called Root Branch Nutrition in Oxfordshire, where she offers consultations and workshops on nutrition and health.