SIR VINCE CABLE revealed his plans to quit as leader of the Liberal Democrats in the same way as he led the party: without attracting much attention. A YouTube stream of his valedictory speech at the party’s spring conference on March 17th has so far received fewer than 1,000 views. By the time he had finished, an orderly queue to replace the 75-year-old had formed. Jo Swinson, the deputy leader, and Layla Moran, the party’s education spokeswoman, who was elected only in 2017, are the bookmakers’ favourites. Sir Ed Davey, who served in the coalition government of 2010-15 and has the knighthood to prove it, is also mulling a run.
Whoever takes over faces a tricky task. The Lib Dems, who were in government with the Tories only four years ago, putter along at barely 10% in the polls. They struggle to make the headlines—an unfortunate exception being this week, when they suspended a former leader, Lord Steel, after he said he had failed to report his “assumption” that Cyril Smith, a late Lib Dem MP, had sexually abused children. The party’s finances are shaky, with staff cuts at its headquarters before Christmas. Its opposition to Brexit has failed to return a political dividend. And new outfits such as the Independent Group (TIG) of former Labour and Tory MPs offer an alternative without the baggage that the Lib Dems picked up during their time in coalition.
Yet pathological optimism is a prerequisite for any Lib Dem. And there exist the outlines of a path to recovery. Local elections, in which the party has a justified reputation for viciously effective campaigning and an army of volunteers that belies its polling position, are due on May 2nd. An even bigger prize is on offer later that month if Britain ends up having to hold elections to the European Parliament, which uses proportional representation. Freed from the iniquities of first-past-the-post, the Lib Dems may scoop up Remainers wanting to cast a protest vote against Brexit. If the party can start posting decent election results, donors may return.
Some Lib Dems think the best way to achieve those results would be through an alliance with TIG. This would scoop up 38 seats in a general election, based on current polling, according to Ceri Fowler and Chris Butler of Manchester University. That would see the Lib Dems overtake the Scottish nationalists to become the third-biggest party again. At the Lib Dems’ conference, Ms Swinson argued for a close relationship, and shared a chummy panel with Anna Soubry, an ex-Tory TIGger.
Others, including Sir Ed, want to know more about TIG’s policies first. And persuading members to approve a tie-up may be hard. Lib Dem activists are just as tribal as any other party’s footsoldiers, as anyone who has witnessed their glee club singing “Tony Blair can fuck off and die” to the tune of “American Pie” can attest. At the conference, they voted down a plan to allow non-members to vote for their leader and even balked at letting non-MPs stand for the job.
TIGgers also have doubts. Chris Leslie, a Labour defector, has pooh-poohed the idea of jumping into bed with the Lib Dems, saying they are still tainted by their time in coalition. Privately, some of the group say the Lib Dems are done for and want nothing to do with them. Nonsense, retorts Tim Farron, an irrepressibly bouncy former leader. “You always get people who are awkward. Most people think it is a real opportunity.”
A decent showing in May’s elections and a new leader could yet reinvigorate Britain’s exhausted fourth party. The danger is that a newer centrist option may eclipse it at the last minute. Even if things go in their favour, the Lib Dems still risk being overlooked.