The Liberal Democrats’ Independent Group problem just got bigger

Senior sources in TIG have ruled out an electoral pact.

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How should the Liberal Democrats respond to the rise of the Independent Group? That’s the question that will define the future of Vince Cable’s party. As of this morning, it is a much trickier one to answer.

The Lib Dem leader uses an interview in this morning’s FT to issue a come-and-get-me plea to the new group, warning that it would be “very damaging” for both parties to occupy the same ideological space under first past the post. “We are looking at joining with them, rather than joining them,” he said. “It’s a rather crucial distinction.”

In practice, that would mean something short of a full merger and rather more like the electoral pact between the SDP and the Liberals. Senior sources in TIG, however, categorically ruled out any such arrangement this morning. It is a significant escalation of hostilities. The faces of TIG have always ruled out joining the Lib Dems and instead make the opposite offer to its MPs and activists. But until now an electoral alliance seemed not just possible but inevitable.

Senior TIG MPs don’t disagree with the substance of what Cable says. They offer a familiar but nonetheless powerful argument in powerful: that the reputational hangover of coalition makes the Lib Dems a drag on the ticket. Pointing to recent polling showing a clear gap between the two parties to TIG’s advantage, they suggest they will be far more effective salespeople for a centrist worldview working alone. 

Cable argues that it would be “very damaging” for two centrist parties to compete in the same electoral space. That is precisely why TIG want to supplant his party rather than cooperate institutionally. 

Where, then, does this leave the Lib Dems? Ominously for a party whose healthy base of activists and councillors has long provided a lifebelt in fallow periods at Westminster, senior sources in TIG say they have been taking soundings from Lib Dem parliamentary candidates. The risk for Cable is that his analysis is so fundamentally correct. In the absence of cooperation at the top, the Lib Dems are vulnerable to cannibalisation from below – where the damage is far more likely to be terminal.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.