Is a Lib Dem succession crisis looming?

James Ford

The Leader’s seat is marginal and the Deputy Leader is retiring – who will take charge of the Lib Dems on May 8th?

The most memorable election night moments usually occur when a famous politician loses their seat. In 1992 it was Conservative Party Chairman Chris Patten in Bath. In 1997 it was Michael Portillo in Enfield Southgate. In 2010 it was Lembit Opik in Montgomeryshire. For the 2015 General Election it may well be Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg who finds his ignominious defeat being played on an endless loop by the nation’s broadcasters the morning after the election.

Although Nick Clegg has dismissed the idea that he will lose his seat as ‘utter, utter bilge’, polling by Lord Ashcroft in November 2014, this March and again last week showed the Lib Dems polling behind Labour in Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency, whilst a poll by Survation (admittedly conducted for Unite) in January 2015 showed the Lib Dems trailing 10 points behind Labour.

However, the defenestration of the Lib Dem leader by the angry voters of Sheffield Hallam will have much wider ramifications than previous election night humiliations. As the serving Deputy Prime Minister, he would probably be the highest-ranking politician to lose their seat in a general election since Conservative Leader Arthur Balfour in 1906.  Much more importantly, it will leave a yawning power vacuum at the top of the Liberal Democrats at the very moment the party is plunged into rancorous, multi-party coalition negotiations.

Whilst a party leader is not required to personally lead coalition negotiations – Nick Clegg did not participate in the formal, face-to-face negotiations in 2010 – someone will need to tell the negotiating team what is and what is not ‘on the table’ as well as selling any resultant deal to the Lib Dem grassroots for agreement. And it could leave the nation wondering who might serve as the next Deputy Prime Minister if the Lib Dems do enter a formal power-sharing arrangement. The last Lib Dem leadership contest – in 2007 – lasted two months, which could mean that a new leader might not be elected until July at the earliest.

Normally, most party leaders have a designated deputy to assume the reins until a formal replacement is elected in the event of their sudden death, incapacitation or resignation (though the Conservatives are a notable exception to this rule). But the Lib Dem Deputy Leader Sir Malcolm Bruce is retiring from politics at the election. Baroness Brinton is the current Party President, but she sits in the Lords rather than the Commons and there is no formal mechanism for her to assume the leadership.

The former party leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, is also retiring from the Commons. Two other senior Lib Dem ‘grandees’ – former leader Charles Kennedy and former deputy leader and party president Simon Hughes – are both facing stiff re-election battles in their respective constituencies, as are two of the party’s five serving Cabinet Ministers (Danny Alexander and Ed Davey). That would leave Vince Cable, Alistair Carmichael and David Laws as the parliamentary party’s most senior office-holders, with former Party President Tim Farron rumoured to be a possible leadership contender.

With so many question marks hanging over the issue of the party’s leadership after the election, it is surprising that the party’s press office refused to give a clear answer on the issue of succession planning when asked by the Evening Standard recently. Hopefully Cowley Street has a contingency plan, otherwise the Lib Dems could find themselves at a severe disadvantage when it comes to deciding who is going to run the country for the next five years.

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