Vince Cable has recently announced that he is planning to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats in May. This is unsurprising, as he has always struck me as more of an elder statesman, and a safe pair of hands to see the party through a particularly difficult period, rather than a leader to take them back to the position of third largest party in the Commons.
The question for the party, which will no doubt be the topic of conversation at this weekend’s conference in York, is: who should be the next leader? Assuming that Cable is ruled out and Farron is not going to have another go (given the disaster of last time, one hopes not for the party’s sake), that leaves nine MPs who could take over the reigns.1
Apart from the obvious joke about rolling a dice to decide, I think the most plausible and likely candidate for the leadership is Jo Swinson, MP for East Dunbartonshire, Deputy Leader and Spokesperson for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
There are several reasons why I think Swinson is the most likely candidate to succeed Cable (I also think she would be the best candidate, but not for all of these reasons):
- She has a majority of 5,000, which means she is less likely to lose her seat at the next election. She did suffer a temporary setback in 2015, but the same thing happened to Vince Cable and both of them regained their seats in 2017.
- She looks, and is, young relative to other MPs. Whilst this shouldn’t be a deciding factor, we live in an age of 24/7 media and appearances matter.
- She’s already Deputy Leader, so has stepped in for Cable on occasions and has a good idea of the challenges involved.
- She has experience as a Parliamentary Private Secretary and Parliamentary Under-Secretary to Cable and Clegg, which presumably means she has friends within the current party echelons.
- She has been a party member for over twenty years, which no doubt means she has a decent number of contacts within the membership.
People I know within the party also seem to think that Swinson would be the front-runner, assuming there is a contested election.
Of course, all this assumes that Swinson actually wants to be leader. It’s a major responsibility, with lots of work on top of being a constituency MP, plus there are unfortunately no doubt extra security issues that come with a high-profile role. Those who both can lead and wish to do so are a rare combination.
If Swinson doesn’t want the role, then the only other serious contenders that I’m aware of are Ed Davey and Layla Moran. Davey has a lot of experience and a reasonable majority, but I’ve heard that he may have blotted his copy book within the party. Moran shares similar characteristics to Swinson, but she has a small majority (816) and her constituency has proposed boundary changes, so she may not be an MP after the next general election. Having said that, becoming leader might boost her profile and increase her chances of being re-elected, although it didn’t do Tim Farron much good.