Conservatives for Cable: why the Tories want a new Lib Dem leader

To win the next election, the Tories need a left-leaning Lib Dem leader who can win over Labour voters in Tory-Labour marginals.

After one of the most fractious months in the life of the coalition since 2010, today's Times reports that David Cameron's team are examining various scenarios for a pre-election divorce between the two parties. One option ("an amicable divorce") would see the coalition break up next summer and the Lib Dems support the Conservatives on a "confidence and supply" basis for the reminder of the parliament. This would involve Clegg's party backing the government in any vote of no confidence ("confidence") and voting through the 2015 Budget ("supply"). 

Under another scenario ("an acrimonious split"), Clegg would be ousted as Lib Dem leader and replaced by a more left-leaning figure, most obviously Vince Cable (who ambiguously remarked yesterday: "I don't particularly want to be leader"), who would reposition his party as equidistant between the Tories and Labour.

There are a significant number of Tories who hope that the Lib Dems pursue the latter course. If it is to win the next election, Cameron's party needs a Lib Dem leader who can win over Labour voters in Tory-Labour marginals. At present, after the defection of around a third of 2010 Lib Dem voters to Labour, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats at the next election (Corby was an early warning) -  there are 37 Conservative-Labour marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory. 

This fact has led the Tories to wonder aloud whether a change of Lib Dem leader before 2015 is now in their interests. The hope is that a social democratic leader such as Cable or Tim Farron, both of whom have signalled their availability, could prompt the party's former supporters to return home from Labour. Tim Montgomerie told me last year that "a left-wing replacement" of Clegg in 2014 was "vital to Tory hopes".

Those with a stake in a Lib Dem recovery have been encouraged by polls showing that the party would perform better with Cable as leader. A ComRes survey last September showed that support for the Lib Dems would rise to 18 per cent under Cable, compared to 14 per cent under Clegg. 

Examine all of this and it soon becomes clear just why Michael Gove was so keen to talk up the prospects of a Lib Dem putsch against Clegg last weekend. 

Vince Cable and Michael Gove after the coalition's first cabinet meeting on 13 May 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's EU concessions show that he wants to avoid an illegitimate victory

The Prime Minister is confident of winning but doesn't want the result to be open to challenge. 

Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.

When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” ("Yes"/"No") to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" ("Leave"/"Remain"), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that "Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias." 

Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of "purdah" during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour's abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers' money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum.

Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron's desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as "rigged" or "stitched-up". By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as "weak" for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.