Leaked ICM polling sends a clear message about Nick Clegg

The numbers adding up to Clegg’s exit

The numbers adding up to Clegg’s exit

There is something deeply suspicious about the timing and placing of the leaked anti-Nick-Clegg polling from ICM in today's Guardian newspaper.

Just as the wave of leadership nausea about Clegg's future in charge of the Liberal Democrats seemed to be passing, these numbers appear reinforcing the case for getting rid of him as quickly as possible. Clegg, it's clear, faces enemies with more influence than your average disgruntled Lib Dem grassroots activist.

It's not just that the polling, which the newspaper states was 'commissioned by a Lib Dem supporter from ICM', makes clear the Lib Dems are on course to lose four constituencies – including Clegg's own Sheffield Hallam seat.

The numbers also put forward the alternative scenario of a Lib Dem party led by the business secretary, Vince Cable.

This appears to be the main purpose of the exercise. In two of the seats, a Cable leadership would make no difference. But then Redcar has always been solid Labour territory and Wells is through-and-through Conservative. All Lib Dems know this.

They will be more interested in the numbers in two cities where opposition to the tuition fees broken promise was always likely to make clinging on tough.

In Cambridge, the numbers show local MP Julian Huppert is set to lose to Labour by a 13-point margin. That would be reduced to just one per cent under Cable.

In Sheffield Hallam, where the local MP is none other than Clegg himself, ICM has him down ten points right now. Repeated at the start of a general election, that would be insurmountable. But with Cable in charge, the Labour advantage is cut to just two per cent.

Why place these private polling numbers in the Guardian newspaper, today of all days?

The finger of suspicion falls, with clunking obviousness, among those pesky troublemaking allies of Cable.

It felt like Vince had been humiliated at last year's autumn conference. The endless machinations of figures like Matthew Oakeshott to boost his prospects had been shown up for what they were: embarrassingly unsubtle attempts to undermine Clegg.

So when the Liberal Democrat press office issued a statement from Cable, who happens to be in China on a trade visit, making clear that "there is no leadership issue", most of those looking on would have assumed that was that.

"Now is not the time for infighting and introspection. The party must hold its nerve," Cable urged.

And yet here is Clegg being undermined yet again by these new numbers, which show that a replacement improves the party's lot.

It leaves the question of his leadership open yet again – despite his shamefaced resolution to soldier on yesterday.