The chorus for Nick Clegg to step down in favour of Vince Cable grows daily. But would the business secretary really make a better party leader?
There’s a strong case for changing leader. Flat-lining in the polls at 11 percent and with most of the policy ‘big gains’ already fading into distant memory the Lib Dems badly need a change in direction to distance and differentiate themselves from the Conservatives. Not just to save their seats but to reassert, perhaps even rediscover, their identity as Liberals again.
But what difference will Cable make? Not as much as some might hope, I fear, especially if Clegg soldiers on as Deputy Prime Minister. In such a scenario we Lib Dems will remain just as associated with the Tories as before. The daily business of government would occasionally be punctuated by a statement from party leader Cable that either sounds like he’s at loggerheads with Clegg and Lib Dem ministers – reinforcing an image of the divided party – or Cable will sound supportive of the coalition which rather defeats the purpose of him seizing control in the first place.
The electorate have never much liked a divided party and creating our own Steel-Owen double act will not only recreate the confusion of identity of the SDP-Alliance days but also serve to amplify splits and spats. Indeed it could magnify many times over the tensions of being the junior partner in a Tory-led coalition and bury any hope of selling to the media what good the Lib Dems have achieved in office.
The only way a new leader would work is if Lib Dems pull out of the coalition altogether. A clean break and a fresh start. But even this carries significant dangers. Should David Cameron immediately call a snap general election Lib Dems will hardly have enough time to reorientate themselves and present a set of new and progressive policies to the country.
And what of Cable’s image? He didn’t run for the leadership last time around because he was judged too old and bald in comparison to Cameron. That hasn’t changed, indeed he may have lost more follicles since. And he’s up against a young Ed Miliband and his tribe of bright young frontbenchers.
Added to that, Cable’s brand is not what it was. However independent-minded he presents himself many voters will remember that he faithfully served in cabinet and will probably not recall the political stories of rumours of him grumbling about policies from behind closed doors. Should Cable take over he will have to stand down from government and has an uphill task to reinvent his old magic with the public.
The difficulty with the Anyone But Nick brigade is that, while I sympathise entirely with their frustrations, they clearly haven’t thought through the scenarios and risk repeating the same mistake of the Tories when Anyone But Hague gave them Iain Duncan Smith and Anyone But IDS delivered Michael Howard. If we get it wrong we Lib Dems have a much smaller political base to fall back on with half our support coming from people who don’t identify with us but simply like what we’re saying at the time or are voting tactically.
Given the damage to the Liberal brand the party does not have the luxury of making a mistake when choosing its’ leader. Nor can we gamble on caretakers in the hope that something better will emerge further down the road. We need someone who is likeable and electable, unsoiled by the coalition, politically progressive, experienced without seeming elderly, savy and astute, and down to earth with a sense of humour.
Seems like an impossible order? Well, no actually. We have Simon Hughes who ticks all of those boxes far more comprehensively than Cable. Does Hughes want it? Who knows. He’s run unsuccessfully in two previous leadership contests and I’ve heard that he felt his time had passed. But if that was his view then hopefully he will reconsider in light of the circumstances the party finds itself in today.
Hughes has the politics to heal the party and the personality to sell it. And he is unlikely to be seen to have destabilised the party by agitating for the crown in the way Gordon Brown did to Tony Blair.
Best of all, on equality Hughes would be more progressive both on the policy front and getting our own internal house in order. Why would we overlook such an asset? It would be truly crazy to pass him over for a third time.
A Hughes leadership would need to coincide with pulling out of the coalition but even if there were a snap general election his distance from government would give Lib Dems the best chance to undertake quick manoeuvres to rebrand the party.
What we need right now is a ‘soft face’ and a clear message, long-lasting appeal and affinity with the ordinary working man and woman. In Lib Dem ranks there is only one choice to rescue us.