Vince Cable’s announcement of his intention to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats in the coming months should not come as a surprise.
In fact, it has been on the cards ever since late last year when he announced his intention to create a “supporters scheme” for those not yet ready to take the step of becoming Lib Dem members (which was duly passed last weekend at the party’s spring conference in York).
Cable has been a safe pair of hands as leader over the past two years, having taken over from Tim Farron following a disappointing result in the 2017 general election. However, members will be a little dismayed that the party has still not made headway in national polls, despite what should be promising electoral conditions as the two main parties shift further away from the centre ground. The upcoming leadership election, then, presents the party with an opportunity to reclaim that space.
As secretary of state for business, innovation, and skills during the coalition, an Orange Book contributor, and an author of many pro-market pamphlets, Vince Cable was well positioned to transform the Liberal Democrats into standard-bearers of pro-enterprise, pro-market liberalism, as was the case under Nick Clegg.
As a result, many who would describe themselves as both socially and economically liberal continue to feel politically homeless, as the Conservative party continues to appease the xenophobic right and Jeremy Corbyn continues to embrace the Marxist, antisemitic left.
Meanwhile, the votes of social and economic liberals are still up for grabs – not only among Liberal Democrat supporters but the wider electorate too. And, while it would be far too early at this stage to pin hopes on one particular candidate, any future leader will need to take these voters seriously.
We already know that the most loyal Lib Dem voters are so-called “Orange Bookers“, and it would be wise for the party to seek to grow this core vote. It is impossible for the party to hide behind being anti-Brexit forever, and so anyone seeking to be the next leader would do well to put a comprehensive liberal message at the heart of their agenda.
In this case, a new approach to messaging is likely more important than a shift in policy. Positioning the party on the soft left, choosing to shadow Jeremy Corbyn’s policy priorities, leaves it vulnerable to Labour’s more radical – and nonsensical – offer. Why would anyone choose to vote for a party promising higher taxes to fund the NHS when Corbyn promises even more funding for no apparent extra cost to 80 per cent of the electorate?
A new Lib Dem leader should look to promote other aspects of what the party has to offer, including raising the employee national insurance threshold, reforming the regulatory policy committee, removing unnecessary regulation, championing individual freedoms such as legalising cannabis, and campaigning against the government’s draconian “porn laws“. All of these ideas are current policies, but it’s unlikely that anyone other than the most dedicated readers of the most recent manifesto would be aware of that.
The Liberal Democrats can still win back the electorate by carving out a niche of their own, offering voters a distinctive message so the party can remain relevant post-Brexit, and putting social and economic liberalism at its heart. Only then can we hope to move on from our current stage of recovery and back towards challenging the Conservative-Labour duopoly.