Happy Clegg: The Lib Dem leader has nothing left to lose

Whisper it: Nick Clegg is actually having a pretty good election

Whisper it: Nick Clegg is actually having a pretty good election

Nick Clegg hasn't looked this happy in years. Photos show him relaxed and content, wearing the standard-issue politician's navy blue jumper, laughing with the wife. He seems as if he might actually be enjoying himself.

None of it makes sense. Opinion polls show Liberal Democrats support has fallen about as far as it can go. Clegg himself looks like he might be about to lose his Sheffield Hallam seat. The party's Scottish seats – home to three current Cabinet ministers – are likely to fall to the SNP tide. In college towns and city centres, where they’ve traditionally won by veering to the left of Labour, they are on course to get hammered. In rural and suburban Lib Dem-Tory marginals, things are not going much better. Clegg should have the face he wore during the first year of the coalition: haunted, bitter and full of foreboding.

But he doesn't. He seems happy. Why is that?

Part of Clegg's relaxation stems from the fact that he simply doesn't matter in this election. He's been priced-out. With approval ratings in the -60s, no-one expects him to improve his party's fortunes. The Lib Dem leader has the breezy disposition of a man who has nothing to lose. In so far as he'll be blamed for the Lib Dem performance, he already has been. 

His performance during last Thursday's TV debate was a case in point. Clegg was forgotten instantly – he barely figured in opinion polling and was largely ignored by commentators – but actually his performance was very accomplished. He spoke confidently and informally in a way which made political sense. He succeeded in distancing himself equally from Miliband and Cameron and came across as more likeable and competent than either of them. He had both on the ropes. His core message – of being too kind for the Tories and too sensible for Labour – is a strong one, if only it was coming from someone else. None of it mattered, because he has lost the right to be heard in the minds of voters. But his performance was very good anyway.

Clegg knew as he got on stage that he was irrelevant. His job is to act as placeholder for a national Lib Dem message. The 'look right look left' message it has settled on is a shield, not a sword. It will not decide the party's election prospects. That will take place on the ground.

The Liberal Democrats have always excelled at local politics. They are dogged campaigners. It's a heritage from the years in which constituent casework and getting to know people on the high street were the best tactics for holding a seat when you were irrelevant to the national political conversation.

It hasn't worn off. Even the Ashcroft polling, which showed Lib Dems struggling across the board, noted that the party's vote was "significantly higher" in all seats when respondents were asked to think about their constituency and the candidates likely to stand there, rather than just asking the straight-up voting intention question.

Ashcroft did not do what the Lib Dems did in their private polling and name the individual candidate. But voters in these seats will be inundated with leaflets showing the individuals in the weeks leading up to polling day and will be reminded of the names again in the polling booth. So it's possible that even Ashcroft's polling understates their support.

The Ashcroft research provides detailed snap-shots of individual constituencies in a way only very wealthy pollsters are able to do. That is immensely useful to the Lib Dems. It saves them the money of local research and shows them where to target their resources.

It shows there are still safe seats like Orkney and Shetland, Cumbria or, to a lesser extent, Eastleigh, where they do not need to target quite as many resources. There are also seats like Portsmouth South – where former Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock will stand as an independent and split their vote – or northern urban seats like Bradford East, where the party has already lost.

But there are also seats, in places like Bermondsey and Old Southwark or Eastbourne, where the party is holding a firm lead in the polls which shows few signs of falling apart ahead of polling day. Here, that local character and personal campaigning will likely protect the party against its national decline.

Then there are the two types of marginals – ones against Labour or ones against the Tories. The Labour seats look lost, but Lib Dems still have the hope that a strong Green performance could rob some Labour candidates of their seats. Things are not as simple here as expected. In Cambridge for instance, where Labour was a point ahead last September, the Lib Dems now have a clear lead.

Ashcroft's polling shows Lib Dem local popularity well ahead of their national numbers in Tory marginals. Seasoned incumbents with tough little majorities like Nick Harvey in North Devon could still hold out.

Even the most despairing of polls still forecasts a rump of 17 Liberal Democrat seats after the election. More optimistic ones point to somewhere between 25 and 30. It isn't exactly good, but it's better than the existential collapse some had predicted.

And yet that type of showing should be enough for the Lib Dems to stay in power. The Tories are unlikely to improve on their 306 seats and Labour is similarly unlikely to be able to form a majority on its own. Both will need the Lib Dems and probably some sort of arrangement with other parties.

There's a reason Clegg looks the most relaxed of all party leaders. He's the one who is still most likely to be in government next month.