My view on this is that we should not rush into an early leadership election for the Liberal Democrats for a number of good reasons…
A Bruising Election
First, we have been through a very bruising general election and despite adding more than 55% of our last vote share two years ago, the failed electoral system has rewarded us with one fewer MP than then and ten fewer MPs than we notionally had just before the election. Of the new team, four are first timers who will require some time to establish themselves in their roles. Two more are relative newbies, leaving five experienced parliamentarians, one of whom has already been leader and resigned.
Second, Johnson has a significant majority in parliament so there will be no general election for at least three years, more likely four (unless there is a complete crash – though I suppose that cannot be entirely ruled out!) Therefore we have time to take a very considered view of how we go about this.
Safe Pair of Hands
Third, if we elect a new leader too soon s/he will have to hit the ground running in the midst of Brexit chaos, since, despite Johnson`s simplistic “Get Brexit Done” mantra, we all know that ain`t gonna happen! Ed Davey, we KNOW will provide us with a safe pair of hands during the next few months at least. This is, for me a very powerful point for not going too soon.
Fourth, whether Ed decides to stand for leader or not, there will inevitably be much hand-wringing about the recent general election strategy. Some, at least, of the overall responsibility for what went wrong will inevitably be laid at Ed`s door, whether deserved or not. Frankly all those discussions about what went wrong (as well as what went right, of course) need to take place BEFORE the leadership election and not during the leadership election. That will inevitably take a few months and take us past the spring conference at least.
As part of that discussion there will have to be equally long discussions about the nature of strategic decision making within the party. There seems to be a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction about that, including general party governance issues which need to be signed off before a new leader takes over. Vince Cable was effectively an interim leader for about a year at least whilst such discussions took place, some of which may well need to be revisited.
What about our competitors?
Fifth, we also need time to see what happens regarding other parties after the failure of the remain alliance to pay any real dividends. This includes a view of how the Labour party works its own pain out. I have already written about the potential for there to be a radical realignment of the environmental left of centre political activists (NOT including socialists by the way! See my previous blog post.). I have made the point that the probable lack of action by the Conservative government relating to reducing carbon emissions will mean that the next government will have to react VERY quickly to make up for lost time.
Frankly, we may already be too late to stop some of the environmental tipping points scientists have been concerned about for a while. Five more years of relative inaction could be five years too much! (Especially in the light of the recent failure of the COP 25 event in Madrid to reach any satisfactory conclusions.) Therefore, realignment needs to happen quickly if it is going to mean anything – a safe pair of hands with ENVIRONMENTAL credentials will be important. Ed Davey has these, despite the Labour trolls giving him grief about his record as a Cabinet Minister.
Sixth, it is apparent that Ed is going to have to consider very carefully whether it is right that he stands for the leadership. Both Jo and Ed were targeted by journalists about their responsibility, in coalition, for all the austerity decisions so derided by those Labour trolls. Both apologised for mistakes, explained that Labour were proposing to be just as austere if not more so, but that argument was damaging to the Lib Dem narrative. Various FaceBook threads have already given vent to these issues and at least one commentator made the point that the Liberal Party suffered 35 years of battering for supporting the Conservatives pre-WWll before coming out of that trough of “hatred” by Labour.
Only Ed knows whether he has the internal strength to withstand several more years of nasty Labour trolling but there is little doubt that much will be made of that in a subsequent leadership battle, even from colleagues within the Lib Dems.
Strategy debate and (more?) changes to Lib Dem Constitution?
Seventh, for at least some of the reasons above, I would not be surprised if we did not end up having a re-run of the debate about whether there should be a change in the constitution to allow a leader from outside the Parliamentary coterie of MPs. Strictly speaking the rules should not allow that debate to take place again so soon after the constitutional decision was made last year – but these are unusual circumstances. However, it will be Spring Conference before that discussion gets to the conference floor and if there is overwhelming feeling for change, such a decision can only be made by Autumn conference (or, possibly, a special conference) In either case that discussion must be finalised before the new leadership election is held, otherwise the party will be accused rightly of navel gazing for too long.
Of course, if there IS a radical realignment, there will probably be new contenders for leadership, not currently in the party (I have already seen suggestions that Caroline Lucas would be favoured by some as a new Leader – and THAT is before any realignment has taken place!) and some may argue for such an eventuality to be welcomed, but that will inevitably slow the process down.
Finally, for the moment, I take the view that Ed`s experience of being a Cabinet Minister will give him far greater leverage in the first months of the new parliament than any new leader could muster, however good s/he may be. Whether or not Ed decides to stand again and whether or not he wins, these first few months of the Johnson Government will be vital in setting the tone for the future.
Jeremy Corbyn is a busted flush (and frankly has been for a long time, but that`s a discussion for another day) so a strong performance by the Lib Dem party leader will be a very visible challenge to the new government. Ed has the forensic skills AND the ministerial experience allowing for a strong challenge in the House of Commons. This should not be disregarded – we need every advantage we can muster in current circumstances.
Also, Corbyn has indicated he is not resigning straight away so it is likely to be late Spring before the Labour leadership debate is started. One of last year`s disappointments was that our leadership debate was crowded out of the media by the Tory version. And, frankly we need all the publicity we can get.
So, my conclusion is that we should extend Ed Davey the courtesy of some months at least as interim leader. We should not be shrill in calling for an urgent leadership contest because there are sound reasons for allowing the 2019 electoral dust to settle. I want to see some real progress towards a “radical realignment of the environmental left” – let us give it time to happen whilst we have a safe pair of hands at the tiller.
Also, we should be spending a lot of time this year working on how we target COP 26 at the year end. There is no Planet `B` if we get this wrong.