When Tim Farron became leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2015, several of his close allies urged him to commission a full and frank post-mortem of the Lib Dem brand and not to rule out changing its name or seeking to merge with another party. Two years later, when Vince Cable replaced him, the party’s position was still sufficiently parlous that his first major proposal was to rewrite the rulebook to allow candidates from outside parliament to stand for the leadership – a change that many of his allies feared might become a necessity sooner rather than later.
It is a measure of Cable’s success that whichever of Jo Swinson or Ed Davey replaces him as leader, neither will face difficult questions about whether or not they are destined to be the Liberal Democrats’ last leader. Both Swinson and Davey opted not to stand for the leadership in 2017, as they judged that the demands of the role were incompatible with their responsibilities as parents. Now, Swinson’s children are older while Davey has moved to a larger house, which allows his son, who has a severe neurological disability, to be educated at home.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Swinson and Davey spent the past two years stewing with frustration over the direction of the party, not least because for the last two months it has been united in jubilation at its successes in the European and local elections. And it is true to say that in the recent past – as both considered how they would do things differently and the leadership campaigns they might run – they imagined that they would be offering different sorts of shock therapy.
Davey, who began his political life working for Paddy Ashdown during another period of Liberal travails, would have pledged to fight the next election as Ashdown reborn. He is an unapologetic defender of the Lib Dems’ time in coalition as the junior partner of David Cameron’s Conservatives, and expected to fight the contest pledging to defend the party’s five years in office, not to bury them.
Swinson, one of the party’s chief campaigners in the Scottish referendum campaign 0f 2014 and the Liberal Democrat lead in the cross-party People’s Vote campaign, would have run as the candidate capable of rebooting the party as part of a broader liberal movement comprising people of all parties and none. Unlike Davey, who was immediately sceptical of Change UK, the new breakaway party, Swinson was a close associate of many of the leading players and an advocate of close ties, perhaps even a formal alliance, with the new party. Also unlike Davey, Swinson has talked of the need to “own the failures” of the Lib Dems’ time in coalition.
But, thanks to the party’s successes in May, there is no obvious need for either an Ashdown-style repair job or for the party to be remade in order to survive: so what’s the leadership contest about?
Swinson’s new message is that Cable has successfully transformed the party from one bobbing along the bottom at 7 or 8 per cent of the vote to one flirting with 20 per cent, and that she is the leader to take it up above the 20 per cent mark and to enable it to challenge for power at a national level. As a dividing line, Swinson emphasises her credentials as someone who works on cross-party campaigns with the People’s Vote and is the Liberal Democrat MP who most frequently appears on television. A regular complaint that Lib Dem members make is that the party doesn’t get its fair share of media coverage – and Swinson’s high profile makes her well-placed to argue that it would be different under her leadership.
As for Davey, the party’s changed circumstances have not changed his message but they have, perhaps, changed how it is heard. When the Liberal Democrats were struggling to regain ground despite facing a Conservative Party led from its right flank and a Labour Party run from its left, his decision to embrace the coalition would have made him the candidate taking a big, bold risk with the party’s future.
That Vince Cable, the second-most prominent Liberal Democrat during the coalition years, was able to lead the party to its best local and European results in its history means that the Davey gambit no longer looks like a gamble: instead, he is able to leverage his time as secretary of state for energy and climate change to argue that he has the credentials for his big mission to decarbonise capitalism.
The bookmakers still make Swinson the favourite, in part because of her greater media footprint. But she is also the candidate challenging a party that has just romped to big, historic victories to be bolder and change what it is. That is usually a message that parties only respond well to after chastening defeats, whether that change is Tony Blair, David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn.
It could be that, faced with the first leadership contest for 12 years in which the party’s future is not at stake, with its membership growing all the time and its polling on the up, Liberal Democrat activists decide that they are better served by Ed Davey. He isn’t calling for a radical rethink of what the party is and has cabinet experience. It could equally be that, with things going so well, activists decide it is time for a woman to be in charge. That the contest’s meaning is so unclear makes the outcome difficult to predict.
Vince Cable now returns to the back benches. He plans to write more books and hopes one day to achieve his dream of appearing on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing. He goes out on a high – and he knows his successor will be very lucky if he or she can manage to do the same.
Stephen Bush’s Encounter with Ed Davey
This article appears in the 12 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind