Matthew Norman: "Nick should hand Vince his job." Here's why he's wrong…

by Stephen Tall on May 1, 2009

“The hour of his greatest triumph may seem an eccentric time to suggest this, but this is the perfect moment for Nick Clegg to hand Vince Cable his job,” says Indy columnist Matthew Norman. (Eccentric doesn’t cover it, Matthew, but let’s hear you out:)

It is through no fault of his own that his party is poised to squander a second successive breakthrough opportunity (the last drowned in the dregs of Charlie Kennedy’s Glenlivet after a woefully lacklustre campaign). A likable, intelligent and evidently sincere chap, and a gifted communicator, Mr Clegg can’t help looking like the centre picture in a five part morphing sequence from Tony Blair to David Cameron.

Back in that distant era when cloning Mr Blair was all the rage, his youthful good looks made him the obvious successor to the doddery Ming Campbell, and his reassuringly middle class blandness a vital defensive bulwark against Tory resurgence in the south east.

Thirty months on, in a drastically altered world, there can scarcely be a Lib Dem member unracked by grief that the Cable guy didn’t run. He declined to do so for the rationale, inarguable then, that replacing one grizzled sixtysomething baldie with another would be suicide. Who knew that his interim leadership, what with Stalin, Mr Bean and all, would prove such a startling success, and that he’d have walked it?

What we now know is that Vince Cable as leader would be a nuclear-powered magnet for disaffected and plain disgusted Labour voters sullenly shuffling towards a Conservative party whose appeal is built partly on what they are not, and partly on the pleasant inoffensiveness exemplified by Mr Clegg.

There are, it strikes me, two fallacies (at least) with Matthew’s argument.

First, he bases his assumption that the Lib Dems are about to squander their “second successive breakthrough opportunity” on the current position of the spread betting markets – these show the Lib Dems on course to gain 45-48 seats at the next general election, a potential loss of one-third of our current seats.

As Mark Pack has noted on LDV before, though, if you’d looked at those same spread betting markets in 2001 at the equivalent point in the electoral cycle they’d have significantly under-estimated the eventual Lib Dem electoral strength.

And as I noted in my poll round-up last month, the party is doing much better than it was in 2000, a year or so before the general election. It’s true, of course, that we’re down on our 2004 post-Iraq high. But my guess – and that’s all these things can ever be, as we can all point to statistics to back up our claims – is that those spread betting markets will tick upwards the closer we get to the general election both because the party (and Nick) will benefit from greater campaign exposure, and because of the traditional incumbency boost that Lib Dem MPs gain.

Secondly, on the ‘cult of Vince’… I bow to no-one in my admiration for our deputy leader and shadow chancellor: I was a fan of his long before his current vogue. But there is a fallacy in assuming that, had Vince stood for election, and had he won, the Lib Dems would be storming the polls just now.

For a start, the media would have given him a much tougher time as our leader than they have done as our shadow chancellor. That’s not to say Vince wouldn’t have been able to brush it aside – that he’d have avoided the occasional overblown gaffe (aka Nick’s widely misquoted ‘30 bedpost-notches’), or have steered the party through the Lisbon treaty vote without front-bench resignations – but he’s not so super-human that the media wouldn’t have identified a flaw and hammered away at it ceaselessly.

If Vince had won, the media would (probably) even now be writing pieces arguing that – eccentric as it might be to suggest it – Vince should hand over to that youthful, energetic, eloquent young man, Nick Clegg, if he wants to protect the Lib Dems’ electoral fortunes.

I firmly believe that a little bit of the media’s cult of Vince is because praising our deputy leader is a good way of slagging off our current leader. Even better, it’s a way for much of the media to demonstrate balance (‘what do you mean we don’t report the Lib Dems – we quote Vince all the time’) while simultaneously implying that the Lib Dems are a lost cause (‘we’d love to give you a chance – if only you’d chosen Vince’).

Ultimately, I think we can afford to be pretty relaxed about such speculation. Most importantly, Vince is a massive asset to the party – without his peerless economic performance it’s likely the Lib Dems would have been almost entirely squeezed out of the political debate for the past year. At the same time, Nick is self-evidently growing into his role –it’s possible that his leading role in the Ghurkas’ victory will turn the tide of media snide that’s been ranged against him since he was first elected.

As Vince himself commented in an interview with the Telegraph last week: “Our leader will become much better known in the election campaign, and we will be a double act.” Youth and experience really isn’t such a bad combination; and it’s a combination neither Nick nor Vince can pull off on their own.