Vince Cable’s leadership election pitch shows both his strength and a possible weakness

The widespread round of media coverage earlier today for Vince Cable’s announcement that he is running to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats shows one of his main strengths – the immediate media interest and credibility he can bring to the role.

It also shows what may turn out to be a weakness too, the question of how long he would be leader for and whether that question would overshadow his leadership from day one. For even on the day of his leadership bid announcement, already there is media coverage of how he might not even stay as leader long enough to fight one general election:

Speaking later on BBC Radio 5 Live, Cable said he could step down in future for a younger successor. He will by 79 by the next general election, but said he felt young enough to do the job, comparing himself to William Gladstone, who became prime minister aged 82.

“When the question arises, of a general election coming up, I’ve then got to make a choice; do I let one of my very able younger colleagues take over or do I do what William Gladstone did, quite a while ago, he became prime minister when he was 82, I think, way beyond my years. Winston Churchill did in his mid-70s,” he said.

And also this disputed story:

Announcing his candidature, Sir Vince denied he had signed a “deal” with Ms Swinson and said there had been “no collusion of any kind”. However Sir Vince admitted he could stand aside for Ms Swinson or another candidate “in three years’ time”.

He told The Telegraph: “There is no deal, she is doing it for her own reasons in her own time. She wants to be deputy leader for her own personal reasons – she is not part of an explicit ticket.

“It is a simple fact of life if I decided in three years’ time to let someone else take over she is ideally placed to do it.”

Asked if he were standing for the full five years, Sir Vince said: “Potentially. Five years is almost geological given all the things that are happening.

“William Ewart Gladstone won an election and was Prime Minister at 82 – a bit older than me.”

‘Vote for me to be leader and let’s decide later if I’ll carry on to a general election’ is certainly an unusual pitch for a would-be leader. It is also one that it’s easy to see media interviewers and opposition MPs make fun of: ‘How can the public take seriously a party whose leader doesn’t even know if they’re going to stick around for their first general election?’ and the like.

How much this will matter depends both on how long that stays his line (I wouldn’t be surprised at all if under follow-up questioning it evolves into a firmer commitment to do the full job) and also how hard Liberal Democrat members are happy to see leadership candidates pressed on such points during the contest.

For the best of friendly reasons, there’s often a high degree of squeamishness in the party about putting candidates firmly on the spot. The format of hustings mitigates against it (with no follow up questions being the norm and the media usually excluded completely from the Q+A part of official hustings, for example). The culture of the party also mitigates against it – I still remember the adverse reaction from fellow members when I politely but clearly tried to put a candidate on the spot in a previous internal selection contest. Yet look at lessons such as those from Theresa May’s own non-contest. Being thoroughly put through your paces and made to really sharpen answers to the sorts of questions the media ask is beneficial for both candidates and the party.

Although not yet formally announced, Edward Davey and Norman Lamb continue to look likely to be the other two contenders in the race. Both spoke at a London Lib Dem event this evening:

Elsewhere Norman Lamb made a significant comment about his line on Europe. Although he rebelled over the Article 50 vote, he tweeted his support for the party’s line of pushing for a referendum on the Brexit deal:

That’s significant as concerns over his views on Europe in the light of that rebellion are one of the most frequent issues I’ve heard members raise about him.

Meanwhile, as predicted following her decision not to stand as party leader, Jo Swinson has become the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, after she was the only person nominated:

I am very proud to have been elected by a newly energised and strengthened parliamentary party.

The government has no majority and no mandate for its extreme version of Brexit, which would do such damage to the health of our economy and the fabric of our society.

In this balanced parliament the Liberal Democrats will be a powerful influence and a strong voice for people who want to see an open, welcoming and tolerant United Kingdom.

Tim Farron added:

Jo Swinson is a brilliant campaigner and someone I am proud to call a friend. I am in no doubt she will be a fantastic Deputy Leader of our party.

Jo is the future of the Liberal Democrats and will make a massive difference laying out a liberal alternative to this divisive Brexit government. Her hard work as a local MP and impressive record as a minister leave us in no doubt that she will be a powerful voice for our party.

6 responses to “Vince Cable’s leadership election pitch shows both his strength and a possible weakness”

  1. With an unstable, hung parliament when will be the optimum time to stand aside. Electing a leader who doesn’t intend to fight the next election is batshit crazy even by the standards of Lib Dem strategists!

  2. Another snap election is surely likely. Theresa May is not a diplomat or deal-doer. If the Tories replaced her with someone better at that kind of thing (Johnson?), they’d see this as the best chance to win an election before Brexit really hurt and again it would be difficult for Labour to refuse them an election. In any case, Labour would fancy their chances. I assume Vince would be in place to fight an election next year, unless possibly he started as badly as another rather old safe-pair-of-hands leader, Menzies Campbell.

    However, neither Gladstone nor Churchill were at their best when PM at the ages he quotes.

    As for the suggestion of collusion, I’ll believe him – but maybe there was, shall we say, mutual understanding?

  3. Vince Cable is taking the right decision to stand. He knew that Jo Swinson was the outright favourite, but also knew that she was not quite ready for it. So by pitching for the leadership now, it gives Jo enough time to consolidate, while Vince gets about three years in the job he covets. He is also now the best choice for disappointed Jo Swinson supporters, because he is the most likely to quit early to allow Jo to lead later. Ed Davey is an obvious careerist, while Norman would not easily withdraw when he is shown not to have all the leadership credentials for the top job. So vote Vince, get Jo – when she is ready.

  4. Why be wondering whether Vince Cable would be leading the party in a GE in five years’ time? It’s someone to lead the party in a probable GE in less than a year we should be concentrating on!

  5. Vince’s position shows how seriously he regards the BREXIT challenge, where his economics background will be an invaluable for the Party in the House and in the wider country too. We cannot seriously expect this Parliament to last five years and it may end with an even more BREXIT-focused election than this month’s, sometime between 18 and 24 months from now.

  6. With Vince Cable as the leader, we could be obliterated in the locals here in Haringey, for he is seen as a key culprit for the £9,000 pa tuition fees that our voters here hate above all policies from the Coalition government. He has also made unfortunate comments post referendum that the new members, all passionate remainers, do not like. And new members are our lifeblood as many of the old have disappeared or gone dormant post-Coalition. Once the last of the council seats we are still clinging on go, the party will be gone too as vital infrastructure will disappear.
    And that is not my only problem with Vince leading the party. With the party nationally where it is, the leader should be at least some of the following: articulate and empathetic vote winner, movement builder, inspirational leader, shrewd operator, skillful manager of people and situations, persuasive debater, dynamic campaigner, hard worker… Anyone but Vince, please.

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