With the election for a new Liberal Democrat leader to replace Tim Farron on the way, the party stands at a crossroads. Whilst neither Sir Vince Cable nor Ed Davey offer a particularly bright future, for the sake of their electoral chances, there is only one way to go.
When Tim Farron resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats following the 2017 general election, the reaction was a mix of shock and anticipation. Shock, as the resignation came seemingly out of the blue; and anticipation, as many believed the party was set to get their first female leader.
Yet to the disappointment of many, Jo Swinson turned down the role, instead opting to run for the deputy leadership, which she won unopposed. Her refusal to run for leader left a vacuum, which a quarter of the parliamentary party sought to fill.
The initial candidates who emerged were Norman Lamb, who had lost to Farron back in 2015, as well as Westminster returnees Sir Vince Cable, and Ed Davey. Earlier this week, Lamb - who may have been the surprise favourite - chose not to run, leaving Cable, and Davey. These candidates, both prominent in the coalition years, offer very different visions for the future of the party.
Sir Vince, who regained the Twickenham seat he lost in 2015, would continue the party’s move to the left. Formerly a member of the Labour Party, he was notably antagonistic to the Conservatives during the coalition years, and expressed discomfort about working with those he had opposed for all his life. Despite having lost the lustre of being the “man who predicted the recession”, he still remains a dominant figure in the party. Aside from his economic views, which are not entirely different from the current track set out by Labour, he has already said that Britain must make compromises on EU membership, and Freedom of Movement.
By contrast, Ed Davey comes from the hard-right of the party. In many ways not dissimilar to David Cameron, he is a proponent of Britain as a more “Open” society. This includes a commitment to free trade, greater market liberalisation (at least, more than Cable), and a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal - with a strong support for Remaining. Whilst his stance on the EU is certainly more in line with the party membership, his liberal economic views are at odds with many in the party.
So, which of these two leaders could most likely guide the Lib Dems back to electoral relevancy? On the surface, Cable may appear the better choice. His economic views better fit the party’s traditional voter base, and Davey is seen by some as a “Yellow Tory”. Furthermore, he is a far more well-known figure in British politics, which could help the party’s representation in the media.
Yet it is actually the lesser-known Davey who stands the best chance. At this point, it should be clearly stated: the future success of the party depends on student voters. Many still have not forgiven the Lib Dems for their tuition fee U-turn during their time in government, and it would take a cataclysmic event for Labour for there to be any chance of them returning.
An event like Brexit.
Whilst many of Labour’s young voters strongly want Britain to stay in the European Union, both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have strong ideological support for Brexit. By leaving the body, McDonnell could more quickly renationalise parts of British industry, such as energy. It would also fit into their goal of leaving international, “neoliberal” structures - with NATO maybe next.
If Corbyn continues to commit his party to a “Hard Brexit”, then the Lib Dems will be given the opportunity to capitalise. If the issue continues to gain salience again, disaffected student voters could well abandon the Corbyn project, and look for more pro-Remain outlets. Whilst the Greens and nationalist parties would certainly benefit, in all likelihood it would be the Lib Dems who would stand to gain the most - so long as they have a leader who is undeniably opposed to Brexit and its resultant affects. A leader like Ed Davey.
Cable’s rejection of complete freedom of movement - and thus full membership of the Single Market - significantly dashes his potential anti-Brexit claim. This puts Davey in a much stronger position going forward, and gives him legitimate appeal as an anti-Brexit candidate. His liberal economic views may present something of a problem, but could be reigned in by strong, social liberal voices in the party, like Cable and Jo Swinson. They are also significantly less salient than Brexit.
However, what if the student voters never return to the Lib Dems? Even in this circumstance, Davey is the stronger candidate. He is more liberal in totality than Cable, and appeals to a different sector of the electorate. Cable, on the other hand, has the same base as that which is currently voting for Corbyn’s Labour - and barring significant collapse, these voters are unlikely to move.
With Brexit likely to again be at the forefront of many voters’ minds, Davey is the stronger candidate for leader. Yet this presents an interesting question. Whilst Davey is a liberal in the vein of many of the Lib Dems’ ALDE partners (the alliance of liberal parties in the EU parliament), he is certainly to the right of the traditional Lib Dem position. Nick Clegg took the party out of its social liberalism into a position of radical centrism, yet Davey could potentially take it even further.
So whilst Davey may be the best leader for the party’s electoral prospects, the question is - would the party membership want him as leader?