Après Nick: which Lib Dem MPs are best-placed to become the next Lib Dem leader?

by Stephen Tall on February 16, 2014

Today’s Independent has an interesting story speculating on the Lib Dem leadership contest to come if the 2015 election result triggers Nick Clegg’s resignation. It’s one of the features of this parliament – perhaps linked to it being a fixed-term in which we know the dates are all known – that there hasn’t been nearly as much gossip about future leadership bids in any of the three main parties.

Anyway, the Indy story seeks to make up a little for that absence: Nick Clegg’s rivals for the Lib Dems leadership told to rev up. The premise of the article is logical and reasonable…

  • If the party does badly in 2015 then Nick will resign;
  • If Nick resigns then the man in pole position to take over is party president Tim Farron;
  • Tim has two in-built advantages. First, he’s not held a government post during the Coalition so is untainted by the unpopular decisions taken. And secondly, his 2010 victory over Susan Kramer to become party president means he’s already fought an all-membership election, and the role ensures he’s very well networked around the country;
  • All the other leading candidates are current members of the government and therefore restricted both in their freedom to speak out and the time to campaign beyond their own seats.
  • Tim Farron starts as odds-on favourite to become next Lib Dem leader, therefore. He knows this already, which is why he’s been wisely avoiding stoking the rumour-furnace further. In both the crucial party conference debates on the economy, he’s sided with the party leadership, notwithstanding the fact that his own economic views are unashamedly much more social liberal than Nick’s or Danny’s (and probably Vince’s too). Some will view this as loyalty, others as careful planning. Tim’s backbench freedom to speak out – and, as he would legitimately argue, his duty as president to speak for the party-at-large – means he’s regarded with some suspicion by some colleagues, especially those who’ve adhered more strictly to collective responsibility.

    There are four other possible future candidates listed by the Indy: Ed Davey, Danny Alexander, Alistair Carmichael, and Lynne Featherstone. Vince Cable doesn’t appear, presumably on the grounds that his moment will have passed, post-2015. Surprising omissions include health minister Norman Lamb, who would surely be inclined to throw his hat into the ring, and Jo Swinson, who would definitely give Tim a run for his money if she retains her marginal East Dunbartonshire seat.

    It’s 18 months since we last asked who party members would choose as next Lib Dem leader in the event of a vacancy – at the time, Vince and Tim topped the poll.

    There is one slightly bizarre coda to the article:

    The Lib Dems are bracing themselves for one more possible scandal. Jeremy Thorpe, the 1970s Liberal leader who was acquitted of conspiracy to murder in the decade’s greatest political scandal in 1979, is still alive but increasingly suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease. Upon Mr Thorpe’s death, a book that is said to expose new details of the scandal will be published, which Lib Dems fear could be tremendously damaging to the party.

    Erm, really? My guess is future revelations about the truth behind the Thorpe affair and ‘Rinkagate’ will be of interest to historians; of mild curiosity to those members of the public that remember it (you’d have to be at least 50 years old to be in that category); and of virtually no political significance whatsoever, given none of the main players are active in front-line politics (and most are dead).

    As Sean Kemp, former special adviser to Nick Clegg, tweeted:

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.