The Lib Dem leadership contest has begun

Tim Farron joins Vince Cable in declaring that he's prepared to stand for leader.

First it was Vince Cable, now Tim Farron has joined the Business Secretary in declaring that he's prepared to stand for the Lib Dem leadership if Nick Clegg is removed. Asked whether he wanted to be leader, the party president told The House magazine: "I certainly wouldn't rule it out" (Cable told the FT: "I don’t exclude it – who knows what might happen in the future"). Farron's answer is significant because when asked this question, a politician traditionally replies: "We've already got a leader and he's doing an excellent job" (or words to that effect). His decision to fuel speculation about his intentions is a sign of just how weak Clegg's position is. As Richard Reeves, the Lib Dem leader's former strategy director, wrote in this week's issue, "For four days and nights the question in the sea air will be: Clegg or no Clegg?"

While it's unlikely that the Lib Dems will seek to force Clegg out in the next year, if the polls continue to show that they'd perform better under Cable, I expect them to remove him before the election. A recent ComRes poll showed that with Cable as leader, support for the Lib Dems would rise to 18%, compared to 14% under Clegg. On a uniform swing, that would leave the party with 39 of its 57 seats, compared with 23 under Clegg. The chance to save 15-20 MPs is likely to prove too good to resist. For the Lib Dems, it represents the difference between a bad result and a terrible one.

Now, in the form of Farron, Cable has an open challenger. The ballots may not have been sent out but, in every other respect, the Lib Dem leadership contest has already begun.

Asked whether he wanted to be leader, Lib Dem president Tim Farron said: "I certainly wouldn't rule it out".

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.