Vince Cable has disowned his long-term political ally Lord Oakeshott, accusing him of commissioning polls showing the party trailing badly in four seats including Nick Clegg's own and described this as "totally inexcusable and unacceptable".
In the latest twist in the bitter battle over the political direction of the Liberal Democrats, the business secretary issued a statement from China – where he is on a trade mission – condemning the "utterly reprehensible" conduct.
Cable's intervention came a day after ICM polls were leaked to the Guardian, showing the Lib Dems were set to lose in four constituencies held by the party, including Clegg's seat of Sheffield Hallam.
The polls, released in the wake of the party's disastrous European and local election results, also showed that the party would lose badly in Wells, Redcar and Cambridge if Clegg remained leader, so challenging the mantra that locally active MPs can withstand the loss of wider support nationally for the party.
The business secretary said: "The commissioning and publishing of polls without the consent of the member of parliament is utterly reprehensible.
"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 and as I made absolutely clear yesterday there is no leadership issue as far as I am concerned."
Cable went on to say that Oakshott "does not speak or act for me".
Lib Dem officials, determined to quell a nascent revolt against Clegg's leadership, had demanded that ICM, the polling company, reveal the identity of the anonymous individual who commissioned the poll, claiming this was required by polling company rules.
Nick Moon, the director of ICM, referred himself to the British Polling Council and was told there was no requirement to identify the person or organisation that commissioned the poll as long as neither ICM nor the poll's commissioner was responsible for the leak to the Guardian.
The Lib Dem leadership said privately that they believed the polls leaked to the Guardian were ordered by Oakeshott, an ally of the business secretary.
Party officials appeared to have demanded Cable disown the alleged actions of Oakeshott, who has long questioned the direction of Clegg's leadership and had already called for the party to pull out of the coalition with the Conservatives to prevent an electoral wipeout.
Oakeshott was a former party Treasury spokesman, and has advised Cable in the past over speeches, but it is not the case that he only acts with the agreement of Cable, or indeed his knowledge.
There was no independent confirmation from Oakeshott that he had commissioned the polls.
With few Lib Dem MPs willing to call for Clegg's head, the plotters against him were hoping to rally constituency activists to call a special conference to unseat him.
Elsewhere, unease about how the party should handle the next 12 months was reflected in an unscientific readers' survey by the party activists' website Liberal Democrat Voice. That poll showed that a majority of members (54%) wanted Clegg to stay as leader, but a significant 39% did not and 7% were undecided.
But there was no sign of any national party figure calling for Clegg's resignation, and the furore over the commissioning of the polls was expected to strengthen the leader's position.
Clegg won the influential support of Shirley Williams. Writing in the Guardian, she said: "Nick Clegg has been a principled, honourable and brave leader of the Liberal Democrats. He has borne criticism, even insult and abuse, with remarkable grace, maintaining a political position based on reason and on strongly held values. Such politicians are rare.
"As for polling in four seats reported today by the Guardian, the survey was conducted throughout April, undermining its credibility – and was clearly commissioned and leaked for political purposes."
Making his first public appearance since the Lib Dems lost all but one of their MEPs in the European elections, the deputy prime minister repeated his claim that stepping down from the leadership would not be in the party's interest.
"I think if I felt, or indeed if the whole party felt that changing the strategy, changing leaders, pulling out of the coalition, which is what a number of these individuals advocate, would deal with the challenge which the party faces … I wouldn't hesitate to advocate it," he said.
But he added: "I think that's not the time to start turning inwards when we of course as a party … should be talking to the British people about what we want to do in the future."
Clegg's office also argued that the Lib Dems did well in the Hallam wards of Sheffield in the council elections last week, so challenging any suggestion that Clegg could lose his seat in the general election.
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