Who are the most influential Lib Dems?
It’s become an annual fixture of the party conference season for Iain Dale to produce a list of the 50 most influential figures in the Liberal Democrats. Here he writes about the 2017 version. (See my older posts for 2016 and 2015.)
Each year I convene three panels to compile lists of the Top 50 Liberal Democrats, the Top 100 People on the Left and the Top 100 People on the Right. Each list is published to coincide with the three party conferences. This is the tenth year I’ve been doing this and despite two referendums and two general elections in the past three years, the pace of change is, if anything, increasing – perhaps not surprising, given the stresses of Brexit and a hung parliament.
The Liberal Democrats have demonstrated the frenetic nature of politics today probably more than the two other parties, with no less than a third of the names on the list not featuring on last year’s. Out goes Tim Farron and his team after a deeply disappointing election campaign, fatally undermined by Farron’s failure to deal with the gay sex question, together with Labour’s ability to portray itself as simultaneously pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit. Still, at least the departing leader has an increase in seats, together with a surge in membership to a record level, to his credit.
And Farron remains popular with the grassroots, so he stays (just) in the top ten of our list. But the biggest movements are of course amongst the new leadership team: naturally, Vince Cable shoots straight to number 1, closely followed by the party’s first woman Deputy Leader, Jo Swinson, at number 2. Others who were lined up to work on his leadership campaign (had there been an election) have climbed up or appeared for the first time: Tom Brake (now the only Commons survivor of the 1997 intake), Lib Dem peer Dee Doocey, advisers Chris Bones and David Howarth, veteran activists Duncan Brack and Mark Pack. Straight in at number 11 goes by-election victor Sarah Olney, MP for Richmond Park for only six months, and Cable’s new chief of staff, despite not even being a party member three years ago. Such are the opportunities available in a small party …
The other main group of new entrants, or re-entrants, are of course the party’s new MPs, some returning after their 2015 defeats. Watch out in particular for Layla Moran, new MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, the party’s first-ever female BAME MP and, judging by the number of conference fringe meetings she’s addressing, already a conference darling. The main Liberal Democrat speakers on Europe and Brexit – Tom Brake, Sarah Ludford, Catherine Bearder, and, now out of Parliament, Nick Clegg – also show perform well. And straight in at number 5 – the highest new entrant – is former MP Nick Harvey, now filling the (probably thankless) task of party Chief Executive.
The Lib Dems still, however, lack stars recognisable in the outside world; most of the names here will be familiar only to party activists. But Cable has had a good start in terms of media appearances (and he’s published a novel), and the return of some coalition ministerial talent should help. If the new leadership is canny enough to navigate the shoals and torrents of Brexit, and exploit the divisions all too evident in Labour and Tory ranks, the party still has a future.
1. (+15) Sir Vince Cable
MP for Twickenham, Leader
Vince Cable won the leadership unchallenged but journalists will continue to speculate how long he will last. Will he give up the leadership mid-Parliament? My guess is, don’t bet on it. He will define the Lib Dems as a pro-European party but success will depend on whether he can rebuild the Lib Dems’ dwindling local government base.
2. (+27) Jo Swinson
MP for East Dunbartonshire, Deputy Leader
The leader in waiting, Jo Swinson has had a quiet time since taking over the deputy leadership in July. A feisty campaigner, she will be no doubt touring the country but she ought to build a very prominent media profile. The Lib Dems have been a very male dominated party and it’s her task to counter that perception.
3. (-1) Nick Clegg
He may have lost his seat but Nick Clegg is still very popular within his own party, and is one of the party’s most recognisable faces. He is concentrating on fighting Brexit and his new book, out next month, will give him an even higher profile on the issue.
4. (-1) Sal Brinton
Sal Brinton has been a very unifying figure at a difficult time for the Lib Dems. An inveterate gossip, she makes it her business to know what’s going on in the party and to calm people down in times of crisis. She identified the ‘Farron problem’ before most others.
5. (REENTRY) Sir Nick Harvey
Interim Chief Executive, Lib Dems
Having failed to win back his North Devon seat at the election, few expected Nick Harvey to return to the political fray. However, the party needed a new face to run it day to day and as a well-known and respected figure, he will carry much more weight than maybe some of his more non-political predecessors have done.
6. (+6) Tom Brake
MP for Carshalton & Wallington, Lib Dem Spokesman for Exiting the European Union
Omnipresent on the media, Brake is one of the party’s most reliable, if not most exciting, performers. Even though he has only a dozen MPs to herd, being Lib Dem Chief Whip is never an easy job. Popular with the party’s press officers because he’s willing to go on any media outlet on a difficult wicket at the drop of a hat.
7. (-) Kirsty Williams
Former Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
She stood down from the leadership in Wales after losing all the Lib Dem seats in the Welsh Assembly apart from her own. She is now, however, the only Lib Dem in a position of power, having accepted a place in the Welsh Executive Cabinet – hence her high position in this list.
8. (-2) Willie Rennie
Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats
Avoiding wipeout in last year’s Scottish Parliament elections in 2016 counted as success in Lib Dem terms. Much of this was due to Rennie’s unexpectedly good performances in the TV debates. He built on this and in the June general election the Lib Dems gained three seats north of the border.
9. (-1) Lord Newby
Lib Dem Leader in the House of Lords
Given the Lib Dems’ strength in the House of Lords and likely impact on the passage of the EU Withdrawal Bill, Newby will have a crucial role to play. He also coordinated the party’s 2017 manifesto. A calm, urbane man, Newby is an underrated media performer. Expect to see a lot more of him.
10. (-9) Tim Farron
MP for Westmorland & Lonsdale, former Leader of the Liberal Democrats
Tim Farron will remain an important voice in the Liberal Democrats. His party never completely took him to their hearts, especially in Westminster, where he was the subject of several whispering campaigns. In 2015 the party needed a rabble rouser to take over and they got one. Maybe if he’d had the full five years he could have made more of an impact.
11. (NEW) Sarah Olney
Chief of Staff to Vince Cable
Having lost her Richmond Park seat after only six months in Parliament, Sarah Olney might have disappeared from view, but in early September she was recruited to run Vince Cable’s office. Having no long background in the party, it’ll be interesting to see how she handles all of the conflicting demands on a leader’s office.
12. (-8) Norman Lamb
MP for Norfolk North, Chair of the Commons Science & Technology Committee
Norman Lamb fully expected to lose his seat in June but didn’t. He then had to decide whether to challenge for the leadership. He didn’t. Still a widely respected voice, especially on health issues, he is now chair of the Science & Technology Committee. Also possibly the most Eurosceptic Lib Dem in Parliament. Not a high bar to cross, it has to be said.
13. (-4) Alastair Carmichael
Former Scottish Secretary, MP for Orkney & Shetland
Formerly very close to Tim Farron, it will be interesting to see what niche Carmichael carves out for himself in this Parliament. He has bounced back from his encounter with the Standards & Privileges Committee and remains a popular figure in the party.
14. (REENTRY) Ed Davey
Lib Dem MP for Kingston & Surbiton, Home Affairs spokesman
It had been widely thought that Ed Davey would stand against Vince Cable for the party leadership but in the end he decided to put his family first. If Cable flounders, expect Davey to lead the opposition to him. In the interim, he will be seen as a wise owl figure, but crucial in the struggle to re-establish the Liberal Democrats as a viable parliamentary party.
15. (NEW) Layla Moran
Lib Dem MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Education spokesperson
The party’s first-ever female BAME MP, and appropriately for the Liberal Democrats someone who went to school in Brussels, Layla Moran has already been tipped as a future Liberal Democrat leader. This isn’t quite the kiss of death which it is in other parties, and with her deep interest in science and education she is likely to be a major figure in the party’s future – provided she can hold on to her seat.
16. (+2) Phil Reilly
Director of Communications for the Liberal Democrats
All round nice guy, Reilly has made the transition from being one of Nick Clegg’s Press team to taking on the whole comms role for the party. He has really grown into the role and commands respect from all those who encounter him. Devout West Ham fan.
17. (+3) Shaun Roberts
Director of Campaigns & Elections
Having returned to Liberal Democrat employment after a spell working for Which? just before the Brexit referendum, Shaun has barely had chance to catch breath in his role. He’s overseen the return of the party to successful Parliamentary by-election ways – first winning a fierce internal debate over taking Witney seriously (securing a huge swing as a result) and then the dramatic victory in Richmond Park. The more modest general election result, however, means the jury is still out on whether his attempts to modernise the party’s campaigning will turn out to be successful.
18. (+3) Duncan Brack
Vice Chair, Lib Dem Policy Committee
The more important or difficult a policy document is in the Liberal Democrats, the sooner the call goes in to Duncan Brack, former policy director for the party and now Vice Chair of the party’s Federal Policy Committee. A bearded environmentalist, Duncan hasn’t been spotted wearing sandals but is otherwise the perfect example of a committed, expert political activist who makes the party’s wheels run smoothly behind the scenes.
19. (+3) Mark Pack
Editor, Lib Dem Newswire
The activists’ activist. Former Campaigns Officer in party HQ, indefatigable trainer and author of several guides to campaigning, what Mark Pack doesn’t know about campaigning isn’t worth knowing. Editor of the most widely-read Lib Dem newsletter/blog, he is aiming to use his massive profile within the party and his place on the ruling Federal Board to push for a more consistent party strategy, including building a core vote: a tough challenge.
20. (-9) Caroline Pidgeon AM
Lib Dem leader on the GLA
Bright, funny, sassy, intelligent, she fought an excellent campaign for London mayor in 2016 even if she didn’t get the result she deserved. She now concentrates her fire on Sadiq Khan as a leading light on the Greater London Assembly.
21. (-6) Mike German
Party Treasurer and DWP Spokesman in the House of Lords
22. (+12) Catherine Bearder
Member of the European Parliament
23. (NEW) Baroness Doocey
Lib Dem Peer and adviser to Vince Cable
24. (+24) Baroness Ludford
Lib Dem Peer, former MEP
25. (NEW) Chris Bones
Adviser to Vince Cable
26. (-9) Paddy Ashdown
Lib Dem Peer, former Lib Dem Leader
27. (-3) Caron Lindsay
Co-editor of Lib Dem Voice
28. (-15) Baroness Susan Kramer
Lib Dem Peer & Economics Spokesperson
29. (-3) James Gurling
Chair, Campaigns and Communications Committee
30. (+5) James McGrory
Co-Director, Open Britain, former Press Secretary to Nick Clegg
31. (-21) Lynne Featherstone
Lib Dem Peer & Spokesperson on Energy & Climate Change
32. (-18) Baroness Parminter
Lib Dem Deputy Leader, House of Lords
33. Lord Stoneham
Lib Dem Chief Whip, House of Lords
34. (+4) Tim Pickstone
Chief Executive, Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors
35. (-12) David Laws
Former Lib Dem Schools Minister
36. (REENTRY) Polly Mackenzie
Lib Dem commentator, former Spad to Nick Clegg
37. (NEW) Joe Zammit-Lucia
Lib Dem donor, helped to set up Radix think tank
38. Christine Jardine
Lib Dem MP for Edinburgh West
39. (+8) Maajid Nawaz
Director of the Quilliam Foundation, former Lib Dem PPC
40. (NEW) Lord Paddick
Lib Dem Home Affairs Spokesman in the Lords
41. (NEW) Andrew Wiseman
Chair, Federal Conference Committee
42. (NEW) Jim Williams
Originator of Your Liberal Britain policy discussion initiative
43. (NEW) Alex Cole-Hamilton
Member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh Western
44. (NEW) Bess Mayhew
Chief Executive, More United
45. (NEW) Stephen Lloyd
Lib Dem MP for Eastbourne
46. (NEW) Wera Hobhouse
Lib Dem MP for Bath
47. (-15) Rumi Verjee
Lib Dem donor
48. (NEW) Jamie Stone
MP (and former MSP) for Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross
49. (REENTRY) David Howarth
Former MP for Cambridge and member of the Electoral Commission
50. (-13) Menzies Campbell
Former Leader of the Lib Dems, Lib Dem peer