Would a Cable-led Lib Dems restore the status quo ante?
The establishment of Britainâ€™s first coalition government has had many political consequences but one of the most significant has been the shattering of the Lib Demâ€™s electoral coalition. Since the election, some pollsters suggest theyâ€™ve lost more than half their vote, with most of that going to Labour. If translated into actual votes, that would give Labour a substantial election victory in 2015 and leave the Lib Dems returning to Westminster in a taxi.
Thatâ€™s a very big if though. For a start, thereâ€™s the likely incumbency factor. Thereâ€™s also the not-so-small matter of events, both those applied externally and those the parties can themselves control and in particular, the leadership.
Two polls earlier this earlier this month suggested that were Vince Cable to take over from Nick Clegg, the Lib Demsâ€™ vote share would increase.
ComRes had them rising to 18% whereas YouGov, which does not take into account certainty to vote, had a three point increase.
Whether heâ€™d be able to maintain that is a different matter. Cable is after all the minister who trebled the maximum student tuition fee and is currently involved in relaxing employment protection – not exactly things that should endear him to the left. On the other hand, heâ€™s been adept at managing to play at being in opposition while in government. With perception being at least as important as reality in determining voting intention, that matters.
Thereâ€™s also the matter of his age. While not exactly elderly, were he to become leader today, heâ€™d be the oldest person to lead any of the three main parties since Michael Foot, and the oldest to become leader since George Lansbury in 1932. Leading a party in the 24-hour news and internet age is a demanding business; one that demands constant and instant responses to events. On the other hand, being a Secretary of State is no walk in the park either and the public seems reasonably happy with how heâ€™s doing his job.
In some ways, the establishment of the coalition brought a return to the pre-1981 situation, with the SDP vote going back home to Labour. Cable – readily identifiable as an SDPer and apparently in close and good relations with Ed Miliband – might be the person to draw that vote back. The irony of that would be that if enough floating centre-left voters returned, the main beneficiaries would be the Conservatives (not to the extent as the 80s – the Lib Dem vote is too concentrated for that now – but significant nonetheless).
Will he, or if not him, some other similar Lib Dem? Perhaps. Nick Cleggâ€™s best card at the moment – like David Cameronâ€™s – is that any other leader would face the same parliamentary arithmetic that prompted the coalition in the first place. That pressure though diminishes as the parliament goes on and by late 2014, the balance may lie the other way.
The questions down the polls have suggested that the lost 10% remains very soft for Labour and recapturing it is critical to the Lib Demsâ€™ fortunes, whoever the leader, whether in office or not. But less directly, itâ€™s just as important to the other parties too.