(First, a disclaimer: this is not a prediction of anything that might happen at the general election. I’ve got no idea what will happen in Sheffield Hallam or any other seat in May, and I’m not making any predictions about what might happen in the election, nationally or locally.)
As ever, when actually asked to explain how the systems of British politics works, and not just repeat some juicy gossip, Britain’s political columnists have come up short. They can read the constituency polls that say Nick Clegg might lost his seat at the election, but when asked to think what that might mean, they have no idea. Sometimes, it feels that having knowledge of how things work is rapidly disappearing from our media, because it’s all too complicated to have to remember facts.
What’s most frustrating about a lot of the ‘nobody knows what might happen’ is that the Liberal Democrats have twice found themselves unexpectedly leaderless in the past decade, though both of those were because of sudden resignations rather than the actions of the electorate. The procedure established by the party in these circumstances is quite clear, even if it’s not in the party’s Constitution: the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party becomes acting leader until such time as a new leader is elected by the party’s regular processes.
So, that’s perfectly clear, except for one small problem. The current deputy leader of the parliamentary party is Sir Malcolm Bruce, who’s not standing at the election, but appears to be holding on to his position until then, which means it will be vacant at the start of the next Parliament. It is important to note that while this role is often referred to as the party’s deputy leader, it is technically only deputy leader of the party in Parliament and as such is only elected by the party’s MPs.
So, if Clegg was to lose his seat in May, there’d be no one to replace him, and there’d clearly be chaos, right? Well, yes and no. Despite the party being full of many people who love nothing more than arguing over a constitutional clause for hours on end (and if you’re that sort of person, you too could become a member of English Council and do it to your heart’s content) I think all but the most stubborn would recognise that this is a case where force majeure applies.
It’s established that the Deputy Leader becomes acting leader when there’s an unexpected vacancy, and that the deputy leader is elected by the party’s MPs. While there may be an established procedure for electing a deputy leader, I can’t see anyone reasonably objecting to the remianing MPs following a very truncated process as soon as they’re able to meet, with their decision then further authorised by the party’s Federal Executive as soon as it meets. In that situation, I would expect the parliamentary party to meet as soon as possible on the Friday (the deciding factor on meeting time may be the timetable for flights from Orkney to London) and the FE to meet on Saturday morning. How urgent the process needs to be would likely be determined by the rest of the result – very rushed if it looks like the party will be taking part in coalition negotiations, somewhat more leisurely if a party has got an overall majority in the Commons.
Who might that interim leader be? I have no idea – I’m not making those sort of predictions, remember? All I know is that there is a simple way for the party to choose an interim leader if the current leader isn’t returned to Parliament, and it’d likely be a herald of some interesting political times if it had to be used.