The deliciously ironic leadership contest Vince Cable’s coronation will deprive us of

by Stephen Tall on June 28, 2017

I don’t share the angst of so many Lib Dems that — it appears — the party has been deprived of a leadership contest. First, Jo Swinson, then Norman Lamb, and now Sir Ed Davey have all declined to take on Sir Vince Cable.

Jo’s and Ed’s public reasons were each good and believable.

Both have just won back seats they lost and need to focus on defending them. The fates of their predecessors, Nick Clegg (defeated) and Tim Farron (big majority slashed), hang heavy in the air. Both also have young families and don’t want to miss out on those unrepeatable moments.

The task of Lib Dem leader is, I reckon, the second worst in politics (after Prime Minister), trying to satisfy a notoriously querulous membership on practically zero resource.

Norman’s public reasons for skipping this contest are more contestable. Citing the “gruelling” campaign to retain his Leave-voting North Norfolk seat, he then anticipates that his abstention on the vote to trigger Article 50 would have sunk his leadership chances: “for many in the party that abstention was an act of betrayal.”

He’s probably right. The pro-EU fervency among many Lib Dems, especially the 20k ‘newbies’ who joined post-23 June — in large part as a result of Tim Farron’s instinctual anti-Brexit stance — would suggest a ‘Eurosceptic Lib Dem’ (the term is relative among our ranks) might struggle.

Though that’s not really a reason not to try, especially if you have a message you think the party needs to hear. For Norman to duck the challenge is understandable; but also more than a little disappointing.

It’s also quite ironic, given that it now seems certain Sir Vince ‘Strong and’ Cable will be coronated. For Vince has long been the No. 1 ‘Eurosceptic Lib Dem’. He once branded the Common Agricultural Policy “a complete disgrace” while opposing the Euro — sensible chap — and (correctly) demanding EU budget restraint despite activist outrage.

More recently, he has questioned the Lib Dems’ decision to bang on about a second referendum, rightly raising awkward questions that many in my party would prefer to shrug off (“Which side would we be on if there was a soft Brexit?”) and arguing for more focus on outcome than process (“I would just like to see more emphasis on what it is we want from these negotiations rather than arguing about the tactics and the means”).

He has also — to the consternation of EU-philes among the party ranks — highlighted the current hypocrisy in which the Lib Dems campaign for preferential treatment for Europeans over non-Europeans (so much for true internationalism!). The same rule should apply to all, regardless of nationality. “The demand for effective immigration control coexists with greater tolerance of diversity,” Vince has noted — a statement reckoned by some Lib Dem activists to rank alongside Enoch Powell, but which probably sounds ultra-liberal to your average punter.

It’s a shame, then, that the Lib Dems are depriving the public of the delicious irony of its two most Euroscpetic MPs contesting the leadership of the most devotedly pro-EU party.

Yet in some ways it’s better a contest is avoided. The actual policy differences between Jo Swinson, Sir Ed Davey, Norman Lamb and Sir Vince Cable are so slight, so cigarette-paper thin, that the campaign would almost certainly have descended into personalised bickering (if not between the rivals themselves then between the factions that would get behind them, projecting their own views onto their chosen candidate).

I’m at ease with a Vince Cable leadership. He’s a grown up, has media smarts, will get a hearing. Of course, there are all sorts of flak that will get thrown at him — tuition fees, Royal Mail, his age — but if anyone can ride that out, he can. And if he can’t, well he’s said he’ll stand down in three years, so we can have another go then. (Did I say ‘go’? I meant Jo.)

Until then, arise Sir Vince.