James Millar: Look north for signs of Lib Dem life beyond Vince
The story of the Lib Dems in Scotland may point the way forward for the party currently led by Vince Cable.
Local elections have traditionally played to Lib Dem strengths – attracting the protest vote and cashing in hard work locally. Yet the party goes into the latest set of elections with at best a questions mark hanging over the leader’s head and at worst a questions over their relevance to modern politics.
Sir Vince Cable was supposed to be the leader who could punch above the party’s lightweight parliamentary presence. The man who could inspire the demoralised Lib Dem troops because he once done a joke about Gordon Brown and was never fully committed to the coalition project that presaged the party’s collapse.
But that’s not how it’s panned out. Cable has failed to make much impact. Recently he confessed he often skips Prime Minister’s Questions because it’s a waste of time. That’d be understandable if he was doing something more valuable instead but there’s no evidence that he is.
The Lib Dems need building up in the way Paddy Ashdown turned it form a bunch of beardy weirdy sandal wearing idealists into a party that won seats, and ultimately a seat at the Cabinet table. But while former SAS soldier Paddy Ashdown could kill a man with his bare hands, Vince Cable has the Nosferatu-esque demeanour of a dead man walking. Because politically he is. Even if the Lib Dems clean up on Thursday his time at the top is still limited by the fact that he’s no spring chicken.
Activists insist that a tidy run of local by-election wins will translate into healthy results on Thursday. Commentators see a party being squeezed by two party politics. The story come Friday morning will be who’s up and who’s down between Labour and the Conservatives. The only way Vince Cable will impinge on the headlines is if the party loses control of the totemic council of Sutton in south west London and goes backward in its inexplicable strongholds in pockets of Manchester.
Indications are that the party will broadly flatline at the elections. A net result of no gains and no losses or just picking up a handful of new seats will represent failure for a party that needs something spectacular to catapult it back into the national conversation.
What then? The party might grumble about Cable but it’s unlikely to eject him in the absence of a better option.
Jo Swinson was the front runner to re-energise the party after Tim Farron stepped down last summer but she passed. Partly to have a baby, partly because the job looked like a poison chalice. Ed Davey was another Coalition big hitter back in 2017. He’s got ministerial experience plus the winning combination of ego, ambition and back story (he’s the MP with a biography most resembling that of Superman: raised an orphan, once saved a woman from the path of an oncoming train) yet he too is mouldering on the backbenches and has made little to no impact since getting re-elected. Layla Moran, the party’s education spokesperson, is attracting positive reviews and a media profile but as an MP of just one year standing even she would surely admit she’s much to learn and is in no way ready for the party’s top job.
So Sir Vince will cling on come what may on May 3 and his standing and that of the Lib Dems will continue to ebb away for now.
Brexit holds the key to any change of fortunes. A second referendum - a policy the Lib Dems can at least claim to have thought of first even if they’ve been less than full-throated in their support for it - would send a jolt through the party. But the post-referendum, post-coalition story of the Lib Dems in Scotland may also point the way forward.
A third of the party’s 12 MPs are Scots. Not even the SNP tsunami of 2015 could shake Orkney and Shetland from its Lib Dem-ery so Alistair Carmichael has been there throughout. But last year Jo Swinson, Christine Jardine and Jamie Stone won their seats by careful positioning in the post independence referendum as the candidates best placed to stop the separatist SNP.
They were led by the tireless and shameless Willie Rennie who has punched above the party’s weight in Holyrood. His strategy has been twofold. First, daft photo ops - such as sliding down a volcano, engaging in a jumping contest with a toddler and being interviewed in front of some randy pigs - that get shared on social media keeping him in the eyeline of the political press pack that spends so much time on Twitter. Secondly, and more seriously, carefully selected issues and campaigns on which the party can claim little victories – raising the age of criminal responsibility, more cash for early years, owning the issue of mental health provision. Six MSPs can make a difference in a hung Scottish parliament. 12 MPs could also achieve leverage in Westminster with some similarly creative thinking.
The Westminster chatterati have recently lamented the way the Lib Dem machine has been stripped of experienced operators, particularly in the press office, who stuck with the party after the Coalition days. But they ought to instead focus on who has been brought in instead – David Green previously worked for Charles Kennedy (the Lib Dem who led them to their best ever election result) and the Scottish Lib Dems. His experience fits with where the party is now. It may be a sign that the party is finally coming to terms with its reduced circumstances.
Perhaps the question should be about whether Cable can convincingly dress up as Marty McFly from Back to the Future or wrestle a sheep as Rennie has done. If he does, it would indicate London HQ has sussed that the route back from oblivion runs through Scotland.
At the very least it would perk up the party faithful. They are unlikely to have much else to cheer on Friday or in the immediate future.