ConHome pushes case for Vince Cable as Lib Dem leader. It’s enough to make you wonder why…

by Stephen Tall on September 22, 2012

You’ve gotta love ConservativeHome. No, really. This morning Tim Montgomerie reports a deliciously mischief-making poll from YouGov, commissioned by the Lord Ashcroft-backed site, comparing the standing of Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats in general.

It won’t surprise anyone to learn that Vince Cable performs better than Nick Clegg in all the measures of leadership qualities asked about. (You can see the results in the graph at the foot of this piece.) This leads Tim to conclude: ‘If the Liberal Democrats are looking for a leader who can increase their electoral competitiveness these are powerful numbers.’

Call me Mr Cynic, but I always take advice from those who work tirelessly in the Tory cause, such as Tim, with a smidgeon of salt. If Tim Montgomerie is urging Lib Dems to look for a leader like Vince the first question we Lib Dems should ask ourselves is ‘Why?’.

It’s not (obviously) because Tim has our best interests at heart. It’s because he thinks the Tories will profit, a view based on a wrong-headed assumption that Vince is basically a bit of a leftie. He’s not. It’s simply that his aim of promoting genuine economic competition doesn’t align with most Tories’ belief that he should give big business exactly what it wants.

But in the Tory world-view the Lib Dems having a ‘leftie leader’ might allow the Tories the chance to grab back the moderate voters they’re otherwise likely to lose as Cameron is dragged further to the right by his party.

What stands out for me from the ConservativeHome poll is this: the close correlation between Nick Clegg’s standing and the Lib Dems as a whole. Of the five qualities asked about, Nick marginally outpolls the party on three (making tough decisions, competent and effective, provides strong leadership), and trails on two (caring about vulnerable, understanding ordinary voters’ concerns). The ‘replace Nick with Vince’ lobby’s argument hinges on the assumption that Brand Vince would boost Brand Lib Dem.

Maybe. But it is also quite likely that Brand Vince wouldn’t survive intact actually having to lead the party. This is where what I’ve termed the ‘Alex Wilcock Realpolitik’ argument comes into play. Here’s how Alex described the leadership choice for the party last month:

I’m prepared to listen to the case for Nick staying or going in a couple of years’ time. But to suggest that a new Leader would stay shiny from now until the General Election and not rapidly become covered in as many layers of excrement as the current Leader has seems to me to be beyond delusional. If the coalition has broken Nick’s Leadership, the time to judge is close to the end of it, when a potential new Leader would be relatively untainted.

As for my own view on Vince Cable as leader, well I refer you to the answer I gave a couple of months ago over at Huffington Post:

Would he be a successful Lib Dem leader? I’m unconvinced. Though he has that rare ability to speak to the full spectrum of Lib Dems – an Orange Book liberal who prefers the label ‘social democrat’ – he has a habit of springing surprise announcements on the party, from his hasty welcome of the Browne Report’s fee-hiking recommendations to his proposal for a ‘mansion tax’ launched without any consultation at the party’s 2009 conference. It’s the kind of behaviour more forgiven if you’re not leader.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.