When Dominic Cummings addressed government advisers recently, he said that he was so out of touch with day-to-day politics that he needed to ask who the current leader of the Liberal Democrats was.
In fairness to the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser, he’s not alone in this confusion. Since Jo Swinson lost her seat to the Scottish National party in the December election, there have been only interim leaders in place as members pick a successor. Ask a No. 10 staffer or Tory MP which candidate they would prefer to win — Layla Moran or Sir Ed Davey — and you are more likely to be met with laughter than a serious reply. Once again the Liberal Democrats are being talked up as a party on the brink of extinction.
Many Tories believe that the Lib Dems blew a perfect opportunity last year. Placed between two polarising leaders in Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, the party, with its clear Remain message, should have been able to hoover up votes from the centre. Instead, it won fewer seats than in 2017 and the moment to stop Brexit passed. ‘They had everything at the last election but they still couldn’t do it,’ says a relaxed Tory MP in a seat where the Liberal Democrats came second.
The problem is not limited to one election either. The 1990s and 2000s, when the Liberal Democrats reliably won around 40 to 60 seats, are a distant memory. It seems that its days of being a ‘vote for none of the above’ have gone.
But while the party may be both diminished and cash-strapped, it’s not done quite yet. In December’s general election it was second in 91 seats, and appears to be within striking distance in a large number of these. Dull as the party’s leadership contest may seem, it will play a role, and a potentially crucial one, in determining whether or not the Tories win a fifth term at the next election.
In theory, Keir Starmer is a nightmare for the Liberal Democrats. He comes across as a competent moderate and someone liberals will be attracted to. He makes it harder for the Lib Dems to woo disillusioned Labour voters tired of the party’s lurch to the left. But the Lib Dem paradox is that, although Labour is their competition, historically they tend to fare better when the party’s leader is a moderate. The Liberal Democrats did best under Tony Blair, worse under Ed Miliband and worst of all under Jeremy Corbyn. ‘Liberal Democrat voters need to feel safe about voting Liberal Democrat — they need to know they are not risking an unacceptable Labour prime minister,’ says a pollster with links to Labour.
Moran and Davey have different approaches to finding relevance in the Starmer era. They are going after different types of potential liberals. Moran is the outside bet. She has declared that, if picked, she would make the party ‘more radical’ than Labour and has promised to be ‘unapologetic’ about it. Her supporters argue that the fact that she wasn’t an MP in the five years of coalition government means her untainted brand can win over young voters. Her allies say her approach will be similar to Charles Kennedy’s, taking the fight to Labour.
Davey, a veteran of the coalition cabinet, is the bookies’ favourite and the more reliable, if boring, option. He is targeting the ‘commuter liberal’. As one election strategist says: ‘People laugh at the fact Ed Davey looks like he signs off accounts for a small business, but that is who the liberal vote is.’
Davey would not plan to make a formal pact with Starmer’s Labour, but he would try to copy the understanding that Paddy Ashdown — whom he worked for — and Blair had in opposition, which saw the pair swapping PMQs attack lines.
There is some talk that if Moran became leader this could lead to some type of merger with the Greens. However, even Moran supporters doubt the likelihood of an outcome that drastic. ‘Members are surprisingly attached to the bird and the colour yellow. They’ll say yes to the bedroom tax but not to trying a new logo,’ says a party veteran.
Moran supporters suggest Davey is too pale and stale to cut through as the leader of the fourth party. ‘Who is going to put Ed on television and if they do, why would he stand out?’ asks one.
But painful memories from Swinson’s brief tenure help Davey’s supporters make the case that he is the unglamorous but reliable option. ‘There’s a lot of talk among the older men in the WhatsApp groups that we’ve had a woman and it didn’t work out well,’ says a party insider. ‘People are looking at Starmer’s success and saying a knight is working out well for Labour. It could for us too.’
Not that anyone is overly inspired. ‘If we can win seats in what we call the yellow doughnut of seats in the south-west, we’ll be back,’ says a member. ‘The problem? I don’t honestly think either of these candidates are people who can do that.’
Ultimately the success of the next Liberal Democrat leader could be down to factors out of their own control. To win a Labour majority, Starmer needs to gain 123 seats in the next election. Given that the SNP are surging in popularity north of the border, to get to a working majority that doesn’t involve a deal with the Scottish nationalists, Labour would need to win in many Tory strongholds.
As the Conservative party focuses more and more on voters in the ‘red wall’, their opponents spy neglected voters up for grabs in the commuter belt. The hope in Liberal Democrat circles is that Starmer will need their help to topple Conservative seats in order to put an end to the Tory majority. After all, it is the Liberal Democrats who tend to be in second place in these seats and have a campaigning presence there. The new leader will be integral to setting the direction for targeting these seats.
While Labour plans to stand candidates in every seat in Britain, there are ways for the party to soft pedal in Tory/Lib Dem marginals. As Starmer adopts the Blair approach of concentrating on the government and the government alone as Labour’s opposition, he could conclude that an unspoken alliance with the Liberal Democrats offers him his best chance of denying the Tories a fifth term in office.
spectator.co.uk/podcast - Katy Balls and Nick Tyrone on the Lib Dem leadership race.