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Why Alistair Carmichael could be the next Lib Dem leader

Having successfully transcended his party's left-right divide, the Scottish Secretary could be the man to hold the Lib Dems together after the next election.

The Scottish Secretary could be the man to hold the Lib Dems together.
Scottish Secretary and former Lib Dem chief whip Alistair Carmichael. Photograph: Getty Images.

Who will be the insurgent candidate when the Liberal Democrats finally decide to topple Nick Clegg? In recent times, it has appeared that the only way to win a party leadership election is to avoid having the baggage of a public profile while simultaneously working furiously behind the scenes. Ed Miliband seemingly came out of nowhere despite claiming the support of the biggest trade union in the UK the year before. The same goes for David Cameron. His rise, while first appearing shocking, was the result of a long slog by modernisers to prepare him for taking the leadership. When looking at the political landscape ahead, it seems clear who the Liberal Democrat equivalent candidate is:  little known MP Alistair Carmichael.

Securing victory for the Liberal Democrat corner over Scottish independence will be what raises him to prominence, in both Westminster village circles, and with the wider public. Don’t underestimate the emotional significance of that, even if the Lib Dems are more detached over questions of nationality. 

What will secure his place in the post-Clegg sweepstakes will be the overwhelming desire for the party to have a man to hold them together after the coalition falls apart. What he can do for the UK, he can for the inevitable infighting over the future direction of the party. Tim Farron is most often touted as the leader-in-waiting, but he only draws support from a certain left-leaning section of the party. Speaking to a campaign staffer in the party makes these concerns concrete: "There are a lot of Lib Dems out there who don’t want Tim Farron to be leader. When people say he is popular with the grassroots, they mean popular with the sandal wearers, but he’s not credible as a national political leader. He’s not a statesman." Vince Cable has more of the statesman about him, and still retains his status as the most popular Lib Dem with the public. Perhaps unfairly, though, many in the party fear another Ming Campbell, who was plagued by concerns over his age. 

With Farron, Cable and Chris Huhne ruled out (via HMP Wandsworth) the other standout candidates find themselves at the wrong end of the political spectrum. The Lib Dems have travelled a long way  from the years when they were an unambiguously centre-left party. Clegg has made their transformation into a party of the centre his defining mission in government. There are too many who suspect, for right or wrong, that someone from his wing of the party is comfortable with the Tories. This means the likes of Danny Alexander (who has a higher approval rating among ConservativeHome readers than their party chairman), Ed Davey and Norman Lamb are too chummy with their Conservative colleagues to provide the clean break the party will need.

Carmichael has managed to avoid falling prey to the left/right divide emerging more clearly in the party as it gets used to power. "He could be a compromise candidate… post-coalition we need someone to hold the party together. Alistair might be the guy," one Lib Dem told me. As chief whip for the Lib Dems before becoming Scottish Secretary, he will know where the bodies are buried. Not only did this position make building a relationship with all the MPs in the party compulsory, it also meant he commanded their respect. Don’t mess with Carmichael.

The fact his role was less visible also meant he managed to stay clear of scandals, whether over unpopular government policy, or the Rennard allegations. There has been no constant surveillance to make sure he toes the grassroots line on each and every issue (take one glance at Farron’s Twitter feed to see his constant posturing to members on there), but each and every time he appears on a media platform, he at least manages to secure the respect of the commentariat.

Oh, and not to mention he also holds the one of the safest Lib Dem seats in the country (Orkney & Shetland has been Liberal since Jo Grimond took the constituency in 1950). Without predicting how well the party's vote share will hold up at the next election, we assume that his position is secure. Many in the Lib Dems are hoping he can secure their future too.

Thomas Byrne is a reporter for Education Investor and Health Investor