Vince Cable is stepping down quickly – because an election may be coming

The Liberal Democrats have had to forego a summer of attention in order to prepare for the possibility of another national vote. 

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Vince Cable has announced the timetable for his replacement as leader of the Liberal Democrat leader, with the field of candidates to be confirmed on 7 June and the winner to be unveiled on 23 July.

The contrast between the two exits could not be greater. Cable formally steps down having made gains in every election he led his party into, and as the man who presided over the most successful set of local elections in the party’s history. Theresa May steps down leaving an open question over whether the Conservative party can survive in its current form.

But the timing – the two contests will run concurrently – means that the contest to replace Cable will receive hardly any coverage, while the race to replace May as Prime Minister will dominate.

It is a boost for Jo Swinson, the current frontrunner, as a short contest makes it harder for any challenger to get up a head of steam. Ed Davey, the former climate change secretary, could make a formidable challenge in the right circumstances, but may struggle given the lack of attention the contest will now have.

It is a blow for the Liberal Democrats, however, and not because Swinson is a bad candidate, but because, for the minor parties, their biggest challenge is simply getting any attention at all. Before Theresa May’s position dramatically worsened over the past week, many Liberal Democrats were quietly looking forward to a quiet summer of paralysis, in which the only moving political story would have been the contest to replace Cable. That won’t happen, though on the upside, the potential for the contest to turn fractious is considerably lessened as a result.

So why has Cable gone now and not waited until the August, when the same dynamic would apply? Well, there is a very real chance that there will now be an election in the summer or the autumn, as whoever wins the Conservative leadership election may well have had to promise things over Brexit, economic policy and who knows what else that cannot be reconciled with this parliament.

But it also means that his replacement may have a very challenging introduction to life at the top of the party indeed – as they may need to move almost immediately from being elected to running a general election campaign. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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