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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.