Nick Clegg has resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats. In his statement, he made a passionate defence of his party’s record in government, saying that “There can be no down that the government of Britain is far stronger . . . and more liberal country than it was five years ago.” He went on to say: “I hope at least our losses can be endured with a little dignity.”
It was a terrible night for the Lib Dems, who have seen their parliamentary party dwindle from 57 seats to just 8. They lost some longstanding MPs and big hitters – Simon Hughes, Vince Cable, Ed Davey, Lynne Featherstone. As pundits have been saying ad nauseam all night, in coalition it’s always the little party that gets smashed.
Now that Clegg has gone, who will lead the much-reduced Lib Dems? There are two likely candidates:
The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale was one of the few Lib Dems to have a good election night – he defied the national swing against his party and was re-elected for his north-west constituency with a nearly 9,000-strong majority. He’s been considered as the likely next leader for a while now (he served as party president 2011 – 2014), even though he’s a very different kind of politician to Nick Clegg. As George Eaton wrote after spending the day with Farron in March:
Farron is neither politically nor personally close to Nick Clegg, his party’s leader. Indeed, perhaps no two senior Lib Dem figures are less alike. One is left-leaning, northern (Farron grew up in Preston), comprehensive-educated, Christian and folksy, the other is right-leaning, southern, privately-educated, atheist and technocratic. It is unsurprising that Farron was chosen to play Nigel Farage during Clegg’s preparation for his debates with the Ukip leader: the pair are natural antagonists.
The party is bound to feel like they need a change of direction in order to put the toxicity of their coalition years behind them, making Farron the most likely successor to Clegg.
A slightly longer shot for the leadership would be Norman Lamb, the MP for Norfolk North since 2001. He managed a majority of 4,000 this time. Lamb is more closely associated with Nick Clegg and the coalition years than Farron, as he served as a minister since 2012 and was even Clegg’s PPS for a while. But he has impressed in his role as minister of state for care and support, talking a lot of sense on the looming elderly care crisis and spearheading their work on mental health. He’s from the right of the party, a so-called Orange-Booker, and is respected in Westminster by colleagues and the media. He represents continuity for the party – he would continue the “Clegg Project”, if there is such a thing.
But given how badly things have gone for the Lib Dems in this election, the party’s activists are surely going to want a chance of direction. Enter Tim Farron.