With Nick Clegg stepping aside as leader of the Lib Dems, the fight begins immediately for who his successor will be. As it happens, even though the party lost 48 seats in the general election, of the eight that remain the two who were always favourites to be the next leader, Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, have kept their seats. So now more than ever, they remain the favourites.
Alistair Carmichael has an outside shot at the leadership, and being a Scottish MP would be good for the party in terms of its unionist credentials, but I think the Tim v Norman contest will pull in all around it. So of the two main contenders, who will triumph?
For a long time, it has been assumed by many that Tim Farron is a shoe-in for the next leader of the Lib Dems. But actually, he has a few obstacles in his path. The biggest is his record on LGBT issues. I want to be clear, I’m not digging this up to smear the chap; it’s just something he needs to address if he wants to be the leader of a liberal party. Also, perhaps unfairly in some respects, his devout Christianity will count against him. Finally, the left of the party, which will probably come as a surprise to many outside of the party, sort of disowned him some time back. However, now that their darling Vince is no longer an option, they may yet flock back to the Farronista camp.
Norman will have to face the “you were part of the government while Tim kept his hands clean” variety of argument. But the biggest hurdle that Norman has to overcome facing Farron is that Tim is a campaigner par excellence, with a noted ability to rouse the troops. Lib Dem members might think that after the election result we’ve just experienced, such a leader is necessary.
So who do I hope will become the next leader? I’m backing Norman, but by a narrow margin. Both Tim and Norman have strengths. Norman is hyper intelligent, and was a great minister; Tim’s ability to keep everyone’s noses up can’t be discounted. But in the end, I just think Norman has the government experience that I’d like the party to take forward.
Whomever takes over from Clegg as leader faces a daunting task. The need to rebuild the party from where it currently sits; having to carve out a niche for the Lib Dems in a very bizarre set of political circumstances, one in which it must be hoped that things evolve in an at least partly Lib Dem friendly way (a very left leaning Labour leader getting in via overt union backing would be a gift, as a for instance); treading a line between not surrendering all of the gain to be had out of having been in government for five years against the need to be a voice of opposition, with many other voices fighting for the same space, once again. I hope whomever gets the job, they’re up for it.