Rob Murat, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom
Sir Vince Cable is the new leader of the Liberal Democrats. The previous leader, Tim Farron, stood down last month due to difficulties reconciling his faith with politics.
Cable is a veteran Liberal Democrat. He is a household name for the party, alongside the likes of Paddy Ashdown or Menzies Campbell. His association with the movement began with the SDP in 1982 which makes him among the longest serving political figures in the party.
But what does his election, or more rather uncontested succession, to the leadership mean for the Liberal Democrats?
For one, they will be led by a man with experience. Vince Cable is no newcomer to politics. As previously mentioned, he’s been involved with the Liberal Democrats and their predecessors the SDP-Liberal Alliance since their early days. He knows the ins and outs of the party, and presumably how third party politics works. He’s already served as deputy leader (for four years), acting party leader (for 64 days), and in cabinet during the coalition government. His role in the leadership of his party previously is widely seen as being popular and effective. His time in cabinet is less lauded but that is to be expected given the context of the coalition government. Cable is not only experienced in politics but also economics. Cable has a theoretical and practical career history as an academic, government advisor, and private company work in the field of economics. Cable is much more experienced compared to Farron.
Vince Cable is also known, in contrast to Farron who had comparatively little presence in the public eye on his ascension. He has hardly avoided controversy during his time in government. Memorable moments include: “declaring war” on Rupert Murdoch and BSkyB, threatening his coalition with a “nuclear option” in leaked comments, and clashing with senior Tories over Capital Gains Tax. Yet he also has his highlights. From ridiculing Gordon Brown to raucous applause and displaying marked foresight in relation to the economic crises at the end of New Labour’s reign, to being hailed as “the moral center of the coalition”. This last plaudit was not enough to prevent him losing his seat in 2015, yet his return in 2017 indicates that Cable is coming out of the cold of political exile. In a month, he has gone from re-election to leadership.
Cable also brings the advantage of offering a clear political alternative. His recent comments about Brexit potentially never happening are an interesting political development which makes Cable’s Liberal Democrats an option for those who wish to stay in the EU. As I’ve written about before, both Labour and the Conservatives are espousing a Leave platform. 53% of the population are also looking for a referendum on accepting or rejecting the terms of Brexit. His vision of a cross-party coalition of Remain supporters may not remain a fantasy in a political climate in which both Conservative and Labour MPs are dissatisfied with their respective party’s stance on Brexit.
Gaining, or regaining, political clout for the party is going to be difficult under the ever-present memory of the last coalition. It’s unsurprising that Cable has already ruled out coalitions with either Labour or the Conservatives. Just today he vowed to “win back voters from the cult of Labour” by considering radical new taxes on wealth. He does endorse collaboration with Remain MPs in both parties to frustrate any motions toward Brexit. He hopes to place himself as “part of the nucleus” for a concerted Anti-Brexit effort. With popular opinion still critically divided over the issue, the Liberal Democrats are the most obvious party for Remain supporters to flock to. Now with an experienced leader at the helm, the Liberal Democrats need to overcome their reputation and present themselves as the clear, Remain, alternative.
Cable himself needs to assert himself as a leader that is here for the long haul. The Guardian tips Jo Swinson, who stood aside and ran for the deputy leadership (also unopposed), as a potential challenge to his leadership. She cited her own lack of experience as a reason to not seek the top job. Cable might then be secure for now, but will have to watch his back. Issues of age have ousted previous Liberal Democrat leaders but one only needs to look at his opponents to find that if he is “too old for the job” then he is in good company.
Cable’s ascension provides the Liberal Democrats with an experienced and well-known leader in a relatively secure position who looks ready to take the party back to their previous heights circa 2010. The British political landscape, miring under the draining weight of Brexit’s consequences, may see itself revitalised by a coherent cross-party resistance intent on reversing the result of last year’s referendum.
Of course, there is always the possibility that the party fails to shake off the memories of their disastrous coalition run and slip deeper into obscurity. Given his previous track record however, Cable hardly seems like the quitting type. Either way, I suspect he will put up a stiff resistance however he can.