Strong and Cable?
Lib Dems need more than Sir Vince to see the party into a sustainable future.
With time to reflect on Tim Farron’s decision to step down as Leader of the Liberal Democrats coming to a close, the contenders for the fourth Party in the House of Commons’ Leadership are lining up. Many have already come forward to praise Farron: Jo Swinson recorded his achievement of driving Lib Dem membership up to its highest point on record, as well as taking back seats previously lost to the party. Others, like former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey, accused his former Leader of holding ‘prejudiced’ views in relation to his Christian faith and views on gay relationships and gay sex.
In truth, Tim Farron’s resignation was expected and should have been expected. It is not so much his Christian faith — a faith held by many other senior politicians including the Prime Minister herself — that was the issue of his leadership, but his handling of the issue of gay sex and sin. Allowing interviews to go viral showing him refusing to answer the question on the matter of sin was never going to end well for Farron, and his eventual rebuttal to the question in the House of Commons was never going to carry traction. His resigning words also made it seem insincere: saying he couldn’t consolidate both political leadership and his faith simple came across as code for ‘I do believe it’s a sin and it’s a shame I can’t say it’.
Tim Farron will therefore go down as a questionable figure. The membership and seat achievements matched by his record on gay sex and sin and the worst General Election vote share for the Liberal Party since the 1950s. As the debate about who to replace him with heats up we should note how he performed, and what held the Liberal Democrats back at this election, and how that will affect the potential candidates.
Vince Cable is so far the only declared candidate. The Veteran Social Democrat would be 79 by the time of the next scheduled election, though with the current situation seeing minority Conservative rule in place, that should be taken with a pinch of salt. His election as Lib Dem leader would mean the Lib Dems would join Labour and the Conservatives in having distinctly older Party Leaders, though, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially considering Corbyn’s connection to younger voters. Having spoken against the continuation of Freedom of Movement and of other aspects of EU policy post-Brexit, Cable sticks out as possibly someone most likely to change Lib Dem policy on the big issue of the day: Brexit.
Following the Lib Dems’ vote share reaching just 7.7% on the back of an anti-Brexit platform, this might well be sensible and offer more clarity on the Lib Dem position on a second referendum, attaching some actual aims and commitments to what the Lib Dems would see as a ‘good deal’ with the EU. Despite post-election polling showing that a majority of people now support the Lib Dem policy on a referendum, the fact that people aren’t willing to vote for a party supporting it suggests a lack of clarity on the aims of any Brexit negotiations has put people off. However, there is also the possibility that accepting common place consensus on Freedom of Movement would bring older Lib Dem voters in places such as the South West of England back into the fold, boosting the electoral chances of a Lib Dem Party led by Sir Cable.
The problems Vince Cable would face as leader are, however, much larger than any electoral benefit he would bring. He, along with Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, were the Lib Dem faces of the coalition with the Conservatives that ended with the Lib Dems losing 48 seats. Alexander lost his seat in 2015, and Clegg in the 2017 General Election (when Cable reclaimed his). The baggage Cable would bring would be one of a Party Leader that hasn’t moved on from the days of coalition, no matter how much he attacks the Conservatives on Brexit, pushing the younger voters the Lib Dems need in Labour-controlled metropolitan areas away from the party.
But beyond that we have a deeper issue. Vince Cable is older than any other Party Leader, and the Lib Dems need time to rebuild and reestablish themselves as the hire Party in British Politics and in the House of Commons. If that is to occur, a long exercise of reconciliation and listening must be the task of any Lib Dem Leader, and the Party should be aiming to take all 38 seats where it came in second in 2017. Whether Vince Cable is to be in office long enough to establish this exercise and carry out remains to be seen, while his views and recommendations on Brexit and policy will also anger many Lib Dem members that want commitment to, not wavering from, the European project.
Other contenders are yet to come forward, but if Vince Cable is the only option the Lib Dems have, then the Party must be prepared to line up a replacement and also change their own perspective to ensure his leadership is a success. He will be a strong speaker during the Brexit years, but likely not one that most Lib Dems feel comfortable having.