David Herdson looks at the Lib Dem leadership
Chris Huhne’s conviction and resignation from parliament has had many consequences, not the least of which is a very interesting by-election. If the Lib Dems lose, it’s likely to put serious pressure on the coalition; if the Tories lose, it raises questions as to whether they can gain enough Lib Dem seats at the next election to form a government, even if they can claw back Labour’s lead; if both lose, it would be the most serious pointer yet to a Miliband government.
On other consequence is on Clegg’s prospects as Lib Dems leader. Huhne was a genuine contender to replace him and the former MP’s positioning as less sympathetic to the coalition project had probably done him no harm in that respect. The Lib Dems could credibly have made a new start under his leadership, had not events turned out as they have. Instead, the field now looks remarkably clear. The failure of boundary reform also removes another major question mark hanging over possible successors.
Second-favourite in that list is Vince Cable (3/1 with Ladbrokes), who can only be an option should Clegg leave before the election: Cable will be almost 72 by the 2015 election – not an age at which people become leader in order to take on an election five years hence. Even then, and despite some attempts to distance himself from his coalition allies, Cable was directly associated with the Tuition Fees U-turn, which would surely count against him.
Ahead of him in the betting is Tim Farron, best-priced at 5/2, also with Ladbrokes. The question here is how not being a member of the government will play with members. If the Lib Dems do detach themselves from the Conservatives before the election, it would make sense to go in with a new leader not tainted by association. Farron is the right age and – as party president – arguably in the right place with members.
On the other hand, if the election’s afterwards, you have to ask whether what must have been a deliberate refusal to join the government would count against him. After all, as leader he may have to persuade his party to join a future coalition. Equally, defeating Susan Kramer – who’d by this stage lost her parliamentary seat – by just 6% for the party presidency was hardly a ringing endorsement. My instinct would be that like Cable, his odds are too short. Interestingly, Simon Hughes – also outside the government and holding party office as deputy leader – is as long as 33/1 with Ladbrokes, which may hold a touch of value if a temporary stop-gap leader is needed.
If we’re to assume that the next leader is unlikely to be a Cleggite, we can probably also rule out Danny Alexander (20/1 with Ladbrokes) and David Laws (14/1 with Bet365). Likewise, despite his cabinet status, Michael Moore’s 40/1 with Hills is another to pass on.
Instead, Huhne’s successor, Ed Davey (9/1 with Paddy Power) probably offers best value. Unlike Norman Lamb (8/1, Paddy Power)), who was Clegg’s PPS, or pensions minister Steve Webb (20/1, PP and Ladbrokes), Davey is not so tied to the harsher aspects of coalition policy and has the opportunity for both visibility and to deliver – or at least fight for – the kind of energy policy Lib Dems approve of. He would also be a serious contender whether the leadership contest’s before or after the general election.
It seems probable as things stand that the vacancy will arise in either 2014 or 2015, which should give us a good idea of who’s likely to be in a position to contest. After that, it’s a matter of how much they want it and who’s well-placed to pick up votes against their rivals.