Who could replace Nick Clegg as Lib Dem leader?

Rumours of who could be the next Liberal Democrat leader are rife.

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Liberal Democrat party conference is traditionally a time for contemplating a replacement of the party’s leader, and this year is no different. Although the party is outwardly backing Nick Clegg, and there hasn’t been a whiff of a coup since Matthew Oakeshott’s botched plot in May this year, there is nevertheless much discussion of who could take the top job next.

As my colleague George reported in the Evening Standard yesterday, it’s a “working assumption” of some party sources that Clegg will have to stand down if the election results are as grim as forecasted currently by the polls.

The Times, announced in its Red Box politics email this morning, has put together its Lib Dem Power List. And many featured at the top of this list are so-called leadership rivals: Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, education and cabinet office minister David Laws, outgoing party president Tim Farron, health minister Norman Lamb, BIS minister Jo Swinson, Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, Business Secretary Vince Cable and Energy Secretary Ed Davey. The former Home Office minister, referred to in the list as a “secret Tory”, Jeremy Browne has slipped down the list, but is still described as a potential leadership candidate.

What have some of these key party figures been saying in reply to the leadership question during conference? Most have refused even to acknowledge that there would ever be a successor to Clegg. But Alexander, at a fringe event hosted by the Independent at the party conference yesterday evening, heavily hinted at his future ambitions:

I enjoy playing a leading role in our party and a leading role in government and so if I had the opportunity to continue that in whatever capacity in the future, yes of course I would. I would like to.

Browne suggested in a recent interview with George that there would have to be a "free-market candidate" in the next Lib Dem leadership race. When pushed about who this would be if one failed to come forward, he replied: "We'll see."

Farron, the current favourite for the Lib Dem leadership, has been far more careful. When asked at a fringe event yesterday if he’d be looking to lead the party, he asserted: “Anyone giving any headspace to anyone other than Nick being leader is letting the side down.” However, he did admit that Clegg has “polarised people” during his leadership. Yet Farron hasn’t always been so reticent about his ambitions; at the party conference two years ago, he cheerily told me: “never say never”.

It is thought by many that Cable, reportedly Labour’s favourite to work with if it had to form an alliance with the Lib Dems, has had his time in the sun. However, one Lib Dem MP tells me that, in coalition, Cable could both lead the party and serve as Chancellor, rather than emulating Clegg in the position of Deputy Prime Minister. They also question Farron’s leadership credentials: “Is he the person you’d like to take door-knocking with you? Yes. Would he be your first choice to speak at your constituency dinner? Yes. Is he the best choice to negotiate a coalition behind the scenes? I’m not so sure.”

Update: 13:18

A few readers are wondering why I've overlooked Carmichael in my analysis. Although he was relatively quiet in the Better Together campaign as Secretary of State for Scotland, he is popular in the party and very personable. He also has the super-safe liberal seat, Orkney and Shetland, and is one of the potential future leaders touted by the bookies. However, as George reported, the likelihood is that he will be reshuffled out of his government role to make way for Jo Swinson, so that the Lib Dems can have their first female cabinet minister.

I asked him about whether there will have to be a replacement for Clegg in the event of a hung parliament. He was very loyal:

Do I think that the Labour party will walk away from being in government and put themselves in opposition for 10 years because they don’t like the person we’ve chosen to be our leader? Nah. Not for a second. But frankly, it’s inside-the-bubble politics . . . And if that’s where Labour want to be that’s fine for them. I’d rather be on the streets talking to the voters.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.