Kicked into the long grass – the Lib Dem leadership election

Long Grass In Rainy Days
18.6 Should the post of Leader become vacant before the election of a new Leader, the Acting Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons and the President of the Party shall jointly assume the responsibilities of Leader of the Party until the new Leader is elected.
Federal Liberal Democrat Constitution

This afternoon, the party announced the timetable for the election of a new leader of the party. This was agreed at the first meeting of the Federal Board chaired by our new President and current co-leader of the party, Mark Pack.

Nominations will open on May 11th, which is the Monday after the elections on May 7th. Nominations will close on May 28th with ballots opening on June 18th and closing on July 15th, after which the new leader will be announced.

I’m not privy to the Federal Board discussions but it does not take a mind-reader to, at least, pick out some of the themes behind this decision.

The first one which occurs to me is that we are at the end of one era and, hopefully, at the beginning of a new fresh era for the party. The last three years have been marked by the turmoil of Brexit, during which we virtually became, in many people’s eyes, a single issue party. The “Stop Brexit” party, or the “Revoke” party or the “Bollocks to Brexit” party.

There is no urgency to elect a new leader, as there was last year with an election or second referendum hovering over us.

We can take our time and have a good think and a mull over where we are and where we want to get to.

We were very fortunate to have Jo Swinson as our leader and Sal Brinton as our President. We are now very fortunate to have Ed Davey as our Acting leader of the Parliamentary party and Mark Pack as our President, and as co-leaders between them. Both are very safe pairs of hands, both have been around the block a few times, and both are very emollient and affable people, well equipped to lead us through the election post-mortem, the May elections and the leadership election period itself.

Another reason to take our time with the leadership election is because we really need to have a post-mortem on the 2019 general election (and probably the two general elections before that as well) first. We need to agree what we did wrongly before we start discussing our new leadership. The leadership candidates will no doubt have valuable input on the post-mortem. The leadership election will provide an excellent forum for discussing where we want to go in the future, having agreed a reasonable consensus around the strengths and weaknesses of our past performance.

It is also a good thing to wait until after the Labour leadership election. Whether we will face Rebecca Long-Bailey or Keir Starmer or Jess Phillips or Lisa Nandy or Emily Thornberry as Labour leader could make a difference as to how we think about choosing our own leader. It may not make any difference to our calculations, but, at least, it is helpful to have the ability to reflect on the result of the Labour leadership election before we choose our leader. Labour announce their new leader on April 4th.

We could have had our leadership election before the May elections, but we would have had to finish such an election well before the campaign started in earnest in April. And the disruption of a leadership election, during the run-up to the May elections, would be somewhat of a nuisance for candidates wanting to campaign.

I have seen a couple of comments saying that this is all a “stitch up” to make Ed Davey leader.

Well, firstly, why on earth can we assume that being co-leader for six or seven months would be kind to Ed? The phrase “Events, dear boy, events” occurs to me. How do we know there isn’t going to be some huge embarrassment for the party or that something bad isn’t going to happen? “A week is a long time in politics“, so seven months is an age.

I would have thought that a further few months will really help all the leadership candidates, some of whom currently have a comparatively low profile. I would have thought this six months will give them a chance to shine both in parliament and outside.

I also think that such a “stitch-up” theory is rather ignorant of the Federal Board, who are 30+ disparate and strongly independent people who were only elected last autumn, who have given much of their lives to the party, and must surely have the best interests of the party at heart.

I should finish by mentioning that the candidates for the leadership are currently expected to be:

  • Daisy Cooper
  • Ed Davey
  • Wera Hobhouse
  • Christine Jardine
  • Layla Moran

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Anne ódling-Smee 18th Jan '20 - 8:36pm

    Good decision.

  • Nigel Jones 18th Jan '20 - 9:33pm

    I breathe a sigh of relief that electing the new leader will not start until May, after the local elections. I think we could even wait longer than that. Contrary to the arguments you report Paul, about a stitch up in favour of Ed Davey, we should be thankful that he is there to lead for the time being, unlike the Labour party.
    One thing worries me; you say we need time to mull over where we are and where we want to get to, but will ordinary members have enough opportunity to be part of this before May ? Unfortunately, the Spring conference looks like being the normal format when it should be a chance for members to engage with all of our parliamentary team and the chairs of all our federal committees about a range of party campaigning and strategy issues. Now is not the time to be debating specific policy issues; can FCC see that ? Maybe more member input could happen over the summer and at Autumn conference and THEN start a leadership election ?

  • In particular we need to look at 2010, and the run-up to it, so we understand what not to do. We need to absorb the lesson that we were downhill all the way from 2006 / 7, work out why that was, and start from there. In a way, the 2015 and 2017 elections in particular and their results for us, were a consequence of what happened 2006 – 10 (and the Coalition period, which led naturally from the 2006 – 10 time).

  • nigel hunter 19th Jan '20 - 12:33am

    Did the period from 2006 onwards have new editors at the Mail etc.? If so they started a campaign agin us Just a theory but as we know now the media is not our friend (although we must ‘woo’ them to liking us)..

    Whoever becomes leader will have to take in mind that they will look for weaknesses to undermine him/her. Especially if we start to get to 20% in the polls cos then we are beginning to be a threat

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 19th Jan '20 - 9:36am

    Martin is probably right in saying that it would not be possible for all five to stand, because it would not be possible for five people to get the necessary number of nominations from MPS. Paul, could you remind us of how many signatures from MPs a candidate requires? There are only 11 MPs, and it would look a bit strange if the candidates signed each other’s nominations. But I hope as many candidates as possible do stand

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 19th Jan '20 - 9:59am

    Thank you, Paul. so to clarify, if each candidate needs to be nominated by at least ten percent of *other* members of the Parliamentary party, then they need ten percent of ten (the *other* members), rather than ten percent of eleven? Therefore each candidate will need just one nomination from another MP? In that case it would be just about possible for five candidates to stand, without having to sign each others nomination forms, as there would be six MPs who would not be candidates.

  • I agree that it is best to wait until after the Labour leadership election. Whether or not it gives Ed Davey an advantage remains to be seen. I would expect the results of the local elections would be significant for him. With political and media eyes on Boris Johnson’s actions and on the Labour leadership election he may struggle to get any attention.

  • Just occasionally there is an advantage in being ignored at the national level. While the traditional print media are full of the Labour contest every other day, Lib Dems have a chance to do the hard analysis and thinking followed by a leadership election without too much outside interference. A number of contributors quite rightly stress the need to avoid distractions from campaigning locally for May’s local elections, where we have much more capacity for setting agendas. Without any inside knowledge, I was intrigued by the first principal authority by-election result of 2020 in Bristol. In Brislington East, a safe Labour seat, Labour dropped a mere 1.1%, Conservatives dropped 6.2%, Greens dropped 4.8% and Lib Dems went up 12.1%. The two parties without national leaders did better in changes of vote share than the other two! Meanwhile should there be an unexpected Westminster by-election, some will remember Dunfermline and West Fife in 2006 when the by-election was awaiting the election of a new leader.

  • Peter Watson 19th Jan '20 - 11:43am

    From the outside, my initial reaction is that this is intended to allow Layla Moran to establish her credentials as an alternative to Ed Davey and the party will choose between those two. It will be interesting to see which MPs are rolled out on to TV and radio most often, especially Question Time.
    When Vince Cable became leader, discussions here gave the impression that he was keeping the seat warm for Jo Swinson, and notwithstanding the rumoured “Anyone But Charmless” campaign by Lib Dem staff to prevent it, that’s how things panned out.
    This time round the party does look a bit lost so perhaps there is an opportunity in the absence of clear leadership (possibly during the local election campaign and until after the summer break) for the various potential candidates, other senior figures, or the members at Conference, to overcome the party’s inertia and give it a bit of a shove in one direction or another.

  • Geoff Reid 19th Jan ’20 – 11:24am…………..Just occasionally there is an advantage in being ignored at the national level…………….

    Agreed! There is nothing like showing a party in a ‘bad light’ as a leadership contest. Labour are ‘bloodletting’ in public and the Tories, with the aid of a compliant media and an almost invisible ‘heir apparent’, stage managed their non-contest.
    This party should avoid the first and hasn’t the ‘clout’ to manage the second; therefore, whittling down should be done quietly with only the ‘finals’ in the main news.

  • I expect all candidates for leader will join us on the local election campaign trail in Sheffield.

  • Any review of the 2019 election result should also consider the 2015 and 2017 results. The major collapse occurred in 2015 we start with that. It was in the period 2010-2015 that many experienced grass roots campaigners and activists were cast aside and ignored by those in the Westminster bubble. People who had built local parties into committed groups of activists that brought about local election success just did not figure in the actions or tactics of those making campaign decisions. The lesson that could have been learnt from the time of the Lib/SDP alliance was the need to maintain a dialogue with the local parties the much loved and lamented David Penhaligon taught that lesson. We needed the same communication during 2010-2015 it was lacking and the consequence was the debacle of the 2015 result with the Tories targeting seats like Yeovil months and weeks in advance and dialogue with local people could have informed those in the Westminster circle when the tory troops were going into certain seats. In 2017 Tim Farron led the party from an impossible base line. He was attacked not just by our opponents but also from within the party because of his beliefs. It took Andrew Marr to say he was being treated unfairly. It raised in my mind the question about Liberal Democrats being tolerant. In 2019 Jo Swinson won the party leadership with a healthy majority, for better or worse she had taken on a difficult task, she should not be vilified now, mistakes were made but alongside tolerance are those other Liberal attitudes of compassion and understanding. In the review of the result I have one major plea. It is vital that opportunity is given to all members to have an input, that the voice of those who can no longer attend party conferences is heard some of us have years of experience that should not simply be cast aside as it was in 2010-2015.

  • Neil Sandison 21st Jan '20 - 8:32pm

    I hope we do not spend too long in our entrails of past failures wallowing in self pity that will not turn all those close 2nd in winning 1st .I hope the MPs listen to the regions and local parties particularly when it come to targetting . To say some of our experienced activists were bemused at some of the HQ inspired targets is an understatement . I want the acting leader to motivate our membership like Tim Farron did and get the bird of liberty flying high from the ashes of self indulgence and believing our own propaganda .

  • Steve Comer 22nd Jan '20 - 3:54pm

    I agree with Brian and others that say any review MUST also look at 2015 & 2017. We seem to be repeating the same mistakes too often.

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