SENIOR Liberal Democrats were forced to defend battered leader Nick Clegg against calls for his resignation yesterday, after a drubbing in the local and European elections that saw all but one of the party’s Members of European Parliament (MEPs) lose their seats.
An exhausted-looking Clegg said his party’s massive losses were “heartbreaking” but insisted that he had not even thought about quitting over the near-wipe out, arguing the Lib Dems’ “big judgements have been vindicated”.
Lib Dem MP John Pugh yesterday suggested that Vince Cable take over from Clegg, the deputy prime minister. But the business secretary disagreed, announcing during his visit to China that “there is no leadership issue” for the party after its dire performance.
“Now is not the time for infighting and introspection. The party must hold its nerve,” Cable said.
The Lib Dems were dramatically reduced from their 2009 performance in last week’s polls, knocked from 11 to just one MEP with 6.9 per cent of the vote, half of its share five years ago.
A red-eyed and visibly distressed Clegg said: “If I thought that anything would be really solved, any of our real dilemmas would be addressed, by changing leadership, changing strategies, changing approaches, bailing out now, changing direction, then I wouldn’t hesitate advocating it.”
An ICM poll, published by the Guardian last night, showed Clegg could even lose his parliamentary seat in next year’s general election.
Ukip, the anti-EU party led by Nigel Farage – who had predicted an “earthquake” in British politics – won the most British seats in the European polls, with 27.49 per cent of the vote. The party has 24 MEPs, up 11 on the last European elections, in addition to the 161 new English council seats it won last week.
Prime Minister David Cameron, whose Conservatives were beaten into third place for the first time ever in a national election, said Ukip’s victory in the European polls would not prevent him trying to win an outright majority in the 2015 general election.
Cameron told the BBC Farage was a “consummate politician” rather than “a normal bloke in the pub”.
The Tory leader also insisted his party is the only one that can deliver a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
Meanwhile, hailing Ukip’s first MEPs in Scotland and Wales, Farage said the party now planned to win its first MP.
“Our game is to get this right, to find the right candidates, and focus our resources on getting a good number of seats in Westminster next year.”
Farage said he was “personally extremely grateful” to Clegg for challenging Ukip to televised debates on Europe, and said he “find[s] it very difficult to believe” that the Lib Dems will have the same leader by next year.
Labour came second with 25.4 per cent of the vote. Leader Ed Miliband admitted Labour has “further to go” to gain support ahead of the 2015 election for Westminster seats.