A U.K. Liberal Democrat lawmaker quit the party and will take leave from Parliament after being condemned for commissioning and leaking polls aimed at pushing Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg out of his job as party leader.
Matthew Oakeshott, 67, a member of the unelected House of Lords and a friend of Business Secretary Vince Cable, made the announcement today after being attacked by both Cable and Clegg.
The opinion polls, published in the Guardian newspaper yesterday, indicated Clegg and three other Liberal Democrats are on course to lose their seats in the 2015 general election and suggested their chances would improve if Cable took over as leader. Cable described Oakeshott’s actions in a statement yesterday as “utterly reprehensible.”
In his own e-mailed statement today, Oakeshott said he’d shared the results of the polls with Cable “several weeks ago.” Speaking later during a visit to China, Cable rejected any suggestion he was involved in the commissioning of the surveys.
“I am sure the party is heading for disaster if it keeps Nick Clegg,” Oakeshott said. He said party activists want a leadership election following losses across the country for the Liberal Democrats in last week’s local and European elections.
“I have tried to give them the evidence they need to make the change,” Oakeshott said. “I pray that they win, and that the right man, or preferably woman, is now elected to save the party.”
Cable later said while he knew Oakeshott was conducting polls, he hadn’t known they were being carried out in the electoral districts of Clegg or Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander.
“I was aware that he was conducting other polls around the country and I was certainly told in general terms what the trends were,” Cable said in a pooled television interview from China. “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 criticized them very severely yesterday.”
Two days ago, Clegg rejected suggestions he should quit, saying he wouldn’t “walk away” a year before the general election. The Liberal Democrats lost all but one of their European Parliament lawmakers last week, finishing in fifth place in the polling behind the Greens. Cable and other senior party members offered Clegg their support.
Oakeshott recalled that he helped in 1981 to found the Social Democratic Party, which joined the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988. He said he wanted “a radical progressive party,” not a “split-the-difference center party,” with “no roots, no principles and no values.” That, he said, “is where Nick Clegg has led us.”
Liberal Democrat support has slumped since the party went into coalition with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010 for its first period in government since World War II. Late that year, the party agreed to raise college tuition fees, reversing its pre-election stance.
In his statement, Oakeshott said he had been contacted several months ago by “a close colleague” who was worried about voter support in Cable’s electoral district in Twickenham, southwest London. The unnamed colleague asked Oakeshott to arrange a poll there. Oakeshott said that, at Cable’s request, he took out a planned question about voting intentions if the party had a different leader.
Oakeshott said the results of that poll “worried me so much” that he commissioned further surveys in other seats, this time with a question about different leaders.
“It’s wholly unacceptable for people in a campaigning political party facing very, very difficult elections to find out now with hindsight that a senior member of the party, far from being out trying to win votes, was out spending time and money on seeking to undermine the fortunes of the party,” Clegg told reporters in London earlier today.
Cable denied there was a leadership issue as far as he was concerned.
“I have made it very clear repeatedly” that Oakeshott “does not speak or act for me,” Cable said in an e-mailed statement. “There are undoubtedly raw feelings in the wake of poor local and European election results. We need to respond in a measured way. Public speculation about the leadership is an unwelcome distraction.”
Cable described Oakeshott in 2012 as “an old friend, and a good friend,” before going on to distance himself from the lawmaker’s maneuvers on his behalf during a previous discussion about him replacing Clegg. “I have not associated myself and certainly wouldn’t want to associate myself with some of the recent comments about the various careers he’s planning for me,” he said in an interview then.
Oakeshott’s polling also identified Alexander as a possible alternative leader. There are no women among the Liberal Democrats’ cabinet members.