The Liberal Democrats stutter on

After minor, but significant, setbacks in the local elections, opinion polls show bad news for the Liberal Democrats.

A poll in yesterday's Times suggests that a majority of all voters think the party should replace its leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, and that an even larger majority of Lib Dem voters think the same.

The trouble is, there is no obvious replacement. Some of the younger and more able MPs, such as Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg, have been in Parliament for only two years. They are also both part of the "Orange Book" faction within the party, which supports free market reforms and is out of sympathy with the party membership. From the left of the party, Simon Hughes damaged his leadership bid last year by first denying then confirming that he was gay. His strong assertion that he was not gay, but that it would not matter if he was, was popular with members, but lasted less than a week before evidence of gay sex chat exploded it.

David Cameron's strategy of first marginalising the Lib Dems as a prerequisite for defeating Labour seems on course. The Lib Dems, and their BBC cheerleaders, expected the party to make gains in this month's local elections. In fact they slipped back. They claimed - again, this was, astonishingly, endorsed by the BBC - to be the real challengers to Labour in the north of England. In northern local government they are actually third, Labour is second, and the Conservatives control more councils than any other party.

So what should an ambitious Liberal Democrat MP do? There have been attempts to seduce Nick Clegg and David Laws into defecting to Cameron's Conservatives.

I don't know either of them, so I will not try to second guess their thinking processes on this matter. But, tactically, what would be their most sensible move?

If there is a hung Parliament after the next election the most likely outcome is a Labour-Lib Dem coalition, with three or four Liberal Democrats joining the cabinet. Both Clegg and Laws would be very likely to get government positions. Not only that, such a coalition might change the electoral system and leave the Lib Dems as near permanent kingmakers. Their sister party in Germany was in power for all but three of the years from 1948 to 1998. Clegg, in particular, has been suggested as a possible future leader, and in such a role could be very powerful.

But all of this is speculative. The current electoral arrangments are not very favourable to hung Parliaments. There has only been one since the 1920s, though the electorate is now much more fragmented making it more likely at the next election than it was in the 1950s and sixties. The third party vote was, however, higher in the 1980s than it has been since, and the two elections of that decades produced three figure overall majorities. A hung Parliament is possible next time, but no more likely than in any of the last six elections. Worse, nothing the Lib Dems can do will significantly increase the chances of this happening. It depends not only on their vote, but on the precise distribution of other votes to the two major and many minor parties.

Though much could change, especially the balance of advantage between Labour and the Conservatives, my best current guess is that the most likely outcome is a Conservative victory; the second most likely outcome is a Labour victory; a hung Parliament is third.

Furthermore, even if there is a hung Parliament, neither Clegg nor Laws is guaranteed a cabinet level position - though minister of state jobs are pretty much certain. Ming Campbell and Vince Cable would certainly join the cabinet. As leader and deputy leader they would be hard to ignore and both are, in any case, old friends of Gordon Brown's. One or two others would probably also get cabinet positions. Paddy Ashdown, Simon Hughes, Tom McNally, and Charles Kennedy all have seniority over Clegg, let alone Laws. It would certainly be possible for Brown and Campbell to bypass any of the above in favour of Clegg if they wanted to, they might not wish to. If there is one position retained for one of the next tier of Lib Dems, there might be reasons to prefer Chris Huhne, Don Foster, Michael Moore, Susan Kramer or Ed Davey to Clegg. If the Lib Dems get four cabinet positions - an upper estimate - Clegg has about a one in three chance of getting one of those jobs. Laws has almost none.

On the other hand, what if they were to defect to the Conservatives? I suspect both would join the Shadow Cabinet straight away. Both would probably enter the cabinet in the event of a Conservative victory.

And, while there is almost nothing that either Clegg or Laws can do to make a hung Parliament more likely, their defection would make a Conservative victory MUCH more likely. The feeling of momentum away from the Lib Dems as a vehicle of protest and towards the Conservatives as an alternative government is already palpable. Senior level defections to the Conservatives from the Lib Dems would enhance this enormously.

A purely pragmatic judgement in the interests of their career should lead Clegg and Laws, probably with Susan Kramer, Nick Harvey, and a handful of others, to join Cameron's Conservatives.

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