Just when we thought everything was settling down – is it really only three weeks since the election? – comes the news that Vince Cable is standing down as Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats in order to concentrate more on his new role as Business Secretary.
It’s a surprising announcement in that there hadn’t been any rumours – or at least none that I’d heard – that he was planning this, but now it’s happened it’s quite a logical decision for Vince to take. The job of Deputy Leader is quite an odd beast within the party – while the official role is not quite the same as the American Vice-President (enquiring each morning as to the Leader’s health, then retiring to your office for the remainder), there’s little in the way of formal responsibility, and as it’s elected solely by and from the MPs there’s little connection to the wider party especially compared to the Party President.
So, the position is pretty much about whatever the incumbent and the party choose to make of it – it could be anything from the simple safe-pair-of-hands-in-waiting-just-in-case to something much more substantial and complex. My idea of what it should be is very close to what Alex Wilcock suggested earlier today:
1: a fairly fresh face. Some experience, but not an old hand who gets it as a consolation prize. Someone to make a mark!
2: someone who’s simply brilliant. A charismatic speaker, good on TV, quick brain – not just seen as ‘one wing’ of the party.
3: not a minister. Even Vince is too busy, & Deputy needs to speak for the party, not bound by collective responsibility.
4: OK, first 3 qualities are must-haves for me. But I’d also prefer a woman: electoral lottery means we’re very lacking.
Unless they make a conscious choice to hide in the shadows, whoever gets the job is going to become very high-profile, in that they’re going to get the call to speak for the party much more than any of their predecessors ever did simply because the rules have changed. Nick Clegg can no longer be the default person the media go to for the Liberal Democrat view and so they’re naturally going to go to the Deputy Leader for comment. Just as several Cabinet ministers over the years have been the ‘minister for the Today programme’, so the Deputy Leader will become the same for us.
This is where Alex’s four points come into play – the person who gets the role has to be an engaging and charismatic public face for the party as a whole, as well as being able to put over the Liberal Democrat view rather than the Government view. It’s also a chance for us to promote a newer face for the party, someone who could go on to be leader of the party (with all the possibilities that now opens up) not just someone getting it as a thank you for long service. For those reasons, I agree with Alex that Jo Swinson is the obvious candidate for the job.