Naturally enough, it is the forthcoming Labour leadership election that has been grabbing the media’s attention. But the Lib Dems also find themselves with a vacancy to fill.
Last month’s General Election resulted in just 11 Lib Dem MPs being returned to the House of Commons. That was one down on the number elected in 2017. In the Euro Elections in May, the Lib Dems had beaten both Labour and the Conservatives. The local elections three weeks earlier saw them make net gains of over 700 councillors. In June there were opinion polls showing them on around 20 per cent – jockeying for the lead with the Conservative, Labour, and the Brexit Party. The Lib Dems were buoyed by defections and a by-election victory in Brecon and Radnorshire. With Labour being muddled over Brexit, the plan was for the Lib Dems to scoop up the Remain vote.
July saw them elect a new leader, Jo Swinson. In October she said she could become Prime Minister, declaring:
“This is a volatile time in politics. Nobody needs to look at received wisdom or what’s happened in the past.”
“Our polling shows that we are within a small swing of winning hundreds of seats, because the political landscape is so totally changed by what has happened in our country post-Brexit.”
Hubris. In the end she lost her own seat. She is too young to remember the speech of her predecessor, David Steel, in Llandudno in 1981:
“I have the good fortune to be the first Liberal Leader for over half a century who is able to say to you at the end of our annual Assembly: go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.”
Of course, it’s easy to sneer with the benefit of hindsight. There were plenty of independent pundits who expected the Lib Dems to do well in the election. In terms of seats, the Party also had some bad luck. Swinson lost East Dunbartonshire to a Scottish Nationalist by only 149 votes. Though the Lib Dems’ national vote share was modest at 11.5 per cent, it was a significant increase – 4.2 per cent – on last time, when they only scored 7.4 per cent. They did put on extra votes but in the wrong places. Ed Moisson on Lib Dem Voice notes that the Lib Dems finished in second place in 91 seats last month. The previous time, in 2017, they were in second place in just 38 constituencies. Sure, they are a long way down from the 23 per cent vote share a decade ago. But it would be misleading to suppose there has been no recovery at all.
So who will the next Leader be? The choice is limited. Their MPs include Tim Farron, their former Leader, but he has rules himself out. A newly elected MP would be an unlikely choice. Among those left are Wera Hobhouse, the MP for Bath, Jamie Stone, who represents Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and Christine Jardine, who was returned for Edinburgh West. All three have been tipped.
Layla Moran, the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, has made clear she is considering standing and has been “clearing the decks” about her personal life in the Daily Mail. She admits that her then boyfriend, Richard Davis, had been detained by police after a row at a party conference turned violent in 2012. Charges against both of them were dropped. Moran describes herself as “pansexual” and is now in a relationship with Rosy Cobb, who was the Lib Dems’ head of media, until being suspended by the Party after a row over a faked email.
But Sir Ed Davey, the acting Leader and MP for Kingston and Surbiton would seem the front runner. Even though he was defeated by Swinson just a few months ago.
Rather more important is finding a role for the Party after Brexit. Some in the Party will want to quickly demand that the UK seek to rejoin the EU. Norman Lamb, a former Lib Dem MP, gives a different view tweeting:
“We have elevated support for a flawed institution (the EU) into an article of faith. Horrified to hear Guy Verhofstadt talking about the EU as an empire and the need for it to ‘defend our …way of life’ – at the Lib Dem conference to big applause!”
Lamb’s stance seems to me the true path for liberals and democrats. But will his Party agree? Even if it does and moves on from being a fan club for the EU, what will it stand for instead? Will it just regress to being an opportunist protest party? Sustaining and building on its local government advances will probably be the immediate priority for the new Leader. Whoever is chosen will face the challenge of giving the Party a coherant mission.