When I heard that Lord Smith of Clifton had called Nick Clegg the coalition's bobbing cork, and urged Lib Dem MPs to reshuffle him so Vince Cable can become party leader, I did the only sensible thing to do on the eve of a reshuffle. I looked up Smith to answer the less than pressing question: "Who he?"
As many Lib Dems must have realised, Clegg has become a problem, lacking either the nastiness to keep David Cameron in order, or the charm and vision to placate his restless activists. But if Cable is the answer, someone must be asking the wrong question.
Anyway, who Smith? It turns out that his lordship is a former vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster, knighted in 1996 and given a peerage in 1997. He is currently Lib Dem spokesman on Northern Ireland and constitutional affairs in the House of Lords, since he is a political scientist by trade. Alas, this admirable CV, full of tireless committee work and worldwide travel, had passed me by.
With so many committees under his belt Smith must be a good backstairs operator, but that is not quite the same as doing standup politics with a live audience. The CV suggests he leans to the left in his party and would therefore prefer Cable to take over the leadership rather than David "Orange Book" Laws to return to some ministerial office where he can encourage the Cameroons in persisting with their self-defeating economic strategy.
Unfortunately Smith looks set to be disappointed on both counts.
I yield to few in my regard for Cable, a clever and decent man whose record of economic prediction during the boom years was wiser than most – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Dave n' George included – though that isn't saying much. As such, he deserves some credit.
Perhaps he should have become party leader after Charles Kennedy stepped down in 2006. But it was Cable who had wielded the knife over Kennedy and, as is often the way, the party looked elsewhere. It opted for an even older man, nice Sir Ming Campbell who was nearly 65 at the time – to Cable's nearly 63. In 2006 Smith turned 69.
It was inevitable with all these bus-pass holders on stage that when Campbell fell in October 2007 (Cable had made unhelpful remarks on the BBC) the Lib Dems swung towards the more youthful Clegg (then 40). He beat Chris Huhne (at least he did until the postal votes were counted) as well as the party's much loved also-ran, Simon Hughes MP.
With hindsight that choice was smarter than the activists knew since Huhne now has an imminent tryst with the criminal justice system over those penalty points. Well within living memory a previous Liberal leader, the colourful Jeremy Thorpe, was tried for conspiracy to murder. Thorpe's acquittal in 1979 prompted my late colleague, Alan Watkins, then of the Observer, memorably and wittily to remark that: "in the hands of a less scrupulous judge than Mr Justice Cantley [the snooty judge in the trial] the power of summing up is one open to abuse." It remains my favourite libel-proof sentence.
I digress. In fractious 2012 it is possible to imagine that the coalition will break up or that Clegg will be forced to resign as party leader while remaining a semi-detached DPM until the election of 2015. I have always assumed the coalition partners would stagger on together because they fear the voters will punish them even harder if they don't. They are a couple locked in a loveless marriage staying together for the sake of the children.
I still think this is the most likely course and the election outcome far from certain in these uncertain times. To make an obvious point, Miliband-led Labour should be doing much better at mid-point in the parliament, especially since its warnings against over-deflationary policies – which Cable endorsed despite his Keynsian credentials – have been borne out.
But Smith, Lord Matthew Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay and Adrian Sanders, MP for Torbay and a Paddy Ashdown man, think otherwise. In different ways they have moved against Clegg these past few days. As Cable's adviser until he (correctly) criticised Treasury policy too loudly, Oakeshott – a former City banker, advisor to the late Roy Jenkins and quote-happy motor-mouth in many a news story – is the brains behind all this.
He has the Daily Mail on his side – but only tactically. In July Oakeshott wanted Cameron to replace "work experience chancellor" George Osborne with Cable – an event as likely as him giving the job to Oscar Pistorius. Last week he notched up his campaign by suggesting the party might want to replace Clegg with Cable.
I can't believe a clever bloke like Oakeshott really believes this stuff, though very clever people often lack common sense. If he does believe it, let me break it to him gently: "THERE'S NOT A CHANCE OF IT HAPPENING MATEY. AND IF THERE WERE IT WOULD END IN TEARS." Us Cable fans see the good doctor as the Barack Obama of the coalition. We had high hopes of his maturity and wisdom, we can see he has been blocked by obstructive opponents, but we also know he's been a disappointment in office.
Unlike Obama he has also shown poor judgment in being a bit too close to passing plots as well as being prone to personal vanity in a misleadingly humble sort of way. Remember how he was naively sweet-talked into Murdoch-bashing indiscretion by a couple of Daily Telegraph reporters with hidden mics up their jumpers? In opposition he was an awkward colleague, trying to bounce the mansion tax on fellow Liberal Democrats in a conference speech, and they have not forgotten.
He's also 69 and will be forced by the Tory tabloids to celebrate his 72nd birthday ("at our age, the candles cost more than the cake,'' quips Barry Cryer) during a 2015 election campaign. Meanwhile Labour will contrast his Keynsian rhetoric with all the things he has voted for since 2010. "Just to keep his ministerial car," they will add unkindly, which is not true in hair-shirted Cable's case, but may work.
Plotters in all walks of life should always have a candidate up their sleeves, so restless Lib Dems had better start looking elsewhere. Clegg has given them a wealth tax plan ahead of this month's party conference in Brighton and the Tories have helped him by savaging it as outrageous instead of patting him on the head and saying: "There, there, Nick". Perhaps Dave n' George savaged it deliberately to help Clegg with his party conference; they certainly need him to stay put.
So. Small war in Lib Dem forest and no dead so far. Why have I written about this instead of the real reshuffle which could start as early as Monday? Because no journalist willingly writes about details of a reshuffle on the very day his or her predictions may be exposed as mere chaff and gossip. Nick Watt, who does have to write about it, has been sensibly cautious in his predictions.
I will only repeat what I often say on these occasions. Middle-ranking ministers and backbenchers who have been dashing around saying "look at me, David" on TV, radio and in print might be better advised to have spent the weekend with the family. Eager beavers like Grant Shapps and Chris Grayling (who fell out of the shadow home secretaryship for being too eager to impress) have been vocal in recent days. It's rarely wise.
As for Claire Perry, eager MP for Devizes since 2010, she has been on the Today programme again despite having the burden of a friendly Guardian profile on her file in the Whip's office. Was she hoping to impress the PM as he shaved, do you suppose?
Cameron is said to be considering making Michael Fallon party chairman in place of the slightly hapless Lady Warsi. But she is right when she reminds him she's northern, working class, a woman and a Muslim – all parts of the electorate the posh boys find it hard to reach. Fallon is none of the above and has all the charm of toothache.
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