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.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.