Finding the right frontrunner. Mixed messages from the Lib Dems

Finding the right frontrunner. Mixed messages from the Lib Dems

It’s easy to forget, but there’s a leadership election going on. The Liberal Democrats misplaced their last leader during another disappointing election night and now needs a new one. There are two candidates, over 100,000 eligible voters (yes, really), eight weeks to go, and virtually no media coverage. Perfect time for a look at the betting options.

Where we came from

Leadership elections are often a reaction to the perceived failures of the previous leader. Corbyn promised radicalism when Miliband was hesitant. Johnson promised uncompromising optimism against May’s Brexit triangulation. So let’s spend a moment remembering Jo Swinson’s leadership.

Swinson was the Deputy Leader to Vince Cable, a rare example of a leader not seen by the party to have failed and thus not subject to a backlash. Swinson was notable for being very young for a leader (39 at the time), the party’s first female leader (which given the woke-ness of the party was seen as an asset by the members), and was meant to bring energy and a break from the bad association with coalition (Swinson had been a junior minister, and was much less associated than most Lib Dem MPs).

Often forgotten is the fact that Jo Swinson got off to a decent start, winning the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election and picking up a string of defections to the party from former Change UK MPs. She appeared to be bringing the momentum the party had lacked since 2010, and making the Lib Dems a serious force again. However, this was overshadowed by a disastrous general election campaign in which the party was heavily squeezed, her personal ratings faltered, and the party lost seats. There is little nostalgia for her in the party right now.

So what replaces that? It depends what you consider the fundamental error to be.

The Candidates

In keeping with party tradition of failing to end FPTP, this will be the fifth successive leadership election with at most two candidates (thus making the AV system moot). While nominations are still open, all MPs have declared their hand and two are putting their name forward.

Ed Davey is the establishment candidate. The beaten challenger last year to Jo Swinson, Sir Ed Davey has been an MP since 1997 (barring a gap from 2015-17) and was a prominent minister in the coalition. He is currently the acting leader, and is running on a policy-strong platform of having the experience and gravitas for the role.

Layla Moran is the change candidate. An MP since 2017 and consequently with no ministerial experience, her platform is one of turning the page on coalition for good and broadly moving the party to the left. Reading her campaign statement on the party website you’d have to say she is less policy-focused than Davey.

So if the change candidate usually wins, as the conventional wisdom holds, then Moran should be the frontrunner? Perhaps, and that is what the betting suggested until a few days ago. But establishment backing has its benefits.

The change candidate wins – but which change?

Clearly Jo Swinson failed, and a new approach is needed. The big question now is who to target, One Nation Tories or more left-wing voters? Or both, if that’s possible?

Moran would say tack left, and that’s probably where the membership’s comfort zone is. But the party saw huge swings in southern, liberal Tory seats in 2019, and the membership also misses the party being seen as serious and important again. The question in 2020 seems to be whether Moran’s political positioning beats Davey’s projection of competence, and Moran has scored some self-inflicted wounds on this point with recent statements showing some confusion of messaging. Davey also has name recognition, which can carry more weight than we’d like to admit.

Moran offers an obvious change from a failed strategy, but Davey has won support of more MPs and membership nominations to date – including the support of Daisy Cooper MP, a rising star in the party and perceived ally of Moran. Why? My reading is that Moran has simply failed to present herself as sufficiently credible to make the election about politics and it has shifted to personality, ground where Davey has the advantage.

The only poll on this election had Ed Davey ahead 52% to 24% against Layla Moran, but that was in January. The conventional wisdom was that Moran had become the frontrunner and Davey was boxed in as the coalition candidate. I think this is a misreading – the membership is still queasy about coalition but Davey’s role as acting leader hasn’t been dogged by it (perhaps because he simply hasn’t been very visible, but even so). I think they’ll choose the leader they know, and not the one who is raising as many doubts as hopes. Even at 1.8 or so (best odds) at the time of writing Davey is probably value, though the lack of polling makes the uncertainty high.

Pip Moss

Pip Moss has been a member of the Lib Dems since 2010 and his overall position is green on Ed Davey at slightly over evens. He posts on Political Betting as Quincel. You can follow him on Twitter at @PipsFunFacts

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