NICK Clegg is to be repackaged as a party leader so that voters give the Liberal Democrats a second look in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, senior party sources have suggested.
With the LibDems as low as six per cent in recent opinion polls, the fight-back strategy has already begun with the Deputy Prime Minister hosting his weekly radio show, holding monthly press conferences, when Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband have ditched theirs, and setting out manifesto commitments such as the £10 billion ring-fencing of education in England.
Recent surveys conducted by Tory benefactor Lord Ashcroft in Lib-Con and Lib-Lab marginals suggest Mr Clegg's party will be heavily squeezed and could lose half of its 56 seats in these constituencies alone; with the caveat that the LibDems are famously feisty local campaigners.
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On the back of the tuition fees U-turn, the LibDems, and Mr Clegg in particular, have come under intense criticism with the party losing hundreds of councillors, all but one of its 11 MEPs and suffering the humiliation of coming sixth in the Newark by-election as Ukip replaces the LibDems as the party of protest.
Earlier this week, Lord Ashdown, the former party leader, lashed out at right-wing newspapers, saying they "detested" the Coalition and had dumped "17 buckets of s**t" over Mr Clegg, believing him to be the UK Government's weakest link.
But the LibDem peer insisted: "I don't think this course is lost and we can reveal the true Nick Clegg before the election and the more we do, the easier the job will be."
Another senior party source close to Mr Clegg said: "We will be asking voters to give us a second chance; saying to them Labour is incapable on the economy while the Tories are shifting too much to the Right.
"Look at us in the middle, look what we have done on the economy, education and the environment."
The source explained that "revealing who the true Nick Clegg" was would be repackaging him as someone who had been through the mill and who had emerged stronger and more resilient; that despite all the flak he had had to endure, he was still standing and taking the fight to Labour and the Tories.
The grandee admitted that following last month's disastrous showing in the European and local English elections, Mr Clegg had considered, albeit momentarily, standing down.
Uncharacteristically, the day after the results it took the party leader several hours to issue a response because during them he had been consulting intensely with colleagues about his future.
The senior source added: "We couldn't have got rid of Nick; that would have led to three months of infighting.
"We now need to repackage him so people give us a second look."
Another key insider confirmed that the LibDem strategy at the next election would be to try to hold on to the seats the party already had - a "consolidation strategy".
Ironically, it was suggested that even if Mr Clegg's party lost a number of seats, it could still hold the balance of power in a hung parliament and, given the keen desire by Mr Cameron and the Tories to retain power and Mr Miliband and Labour to seize it, the LibDems could have even more influence on who governs post May 7 2015 with only 30 or 40 MPs.
The senior source suggested key colleagues were minded to favour another Lib-Con partnership as Labour would simply adopt the attitude Gordon Brown had in 2010; that it would be a Labour government with a LibDem add-on.
What his party was intent on doing, insisted the source, was forging a full Coalition; any measure like a confidence-and-supply arrangement would not work. The source also suggested that while Mr Clegg and his colleagues were - like Labour - opposed to the Tories' in/ out referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, they could get a lot in return in any post-election Coalition negotiations if they allowed it to go ahead.