The electoral function of the SDP/Liberal Alliance during the 1980s was to help provide Margaret Thatcher with landslides. In 1987, it gained 22 per cent of the vote, and Thatcher took 42 per cent, from which she won a Commons majority of 102. Last week, Theresa May obtained exactly the same proportion, but the Alliance’s successor, the Liberal Democrats, secured only seven per cent. Herein lies much of the explanation of why, on the same share of the vote, Thatcher won an emphatic majority and May none at all.
Conservatives will therefore hope that Tim Farron’s replacement supplies his party with more effective leadership, thus replicating the Alliance’s role. But might this new leader damage May more than Corbyn?
The LibDems are still suffering from the effects of Coalition on its vote. Nick Hillman suggested on this site during the election campaign that this generation of students has not forgiven the last generation of LibDem leaders for the tuition fees debacle. And the party’s leader when he wrote on this site was still Farron – who held no ministerial post under the Coalition and was often very critical of it. This stance paid off for him during the party’s last leadership election.
Now that Jo Swinson has made it clear that she will not stand this time round, the most likely leading candidates are apparently Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Norman Lamb.
ConservativeHome has no wish to blight the prospects of any of these gentlemen by supporting them…and thus goes cheerfully on to say that the best candidate of these is obviously Cable, who though a terrible old gloommonger is also intelligent, resourceful, and, above all, already has a public profile. This is no bad thing for the leader of Britain’s third party, sorry, fourth party in its struggle to gain traction with voters. True, he is not exactly in the first flush of youth, but then neither is Jeremy Corbyn.
None the less, Cable – like Davey and Lamb too – was a Coalition Minister, and a very senior one at that. A glance at any of them would deter some Labour voters from giving the Liberal Democrats a second look. A new leader who served in government with the Tories might be unable to persuade such voters that his party would not serve with them again – if such would indeed be his position. Meanwhile, the Conservatives could find it hard going to pan convincingly someone with whom they had served in government.
Perhaps the new leader’s contribution would be to draw more support from Remain-friendly, southern-based soft Tories than from social democratic, moderate Labour supporters horrified by Corbyn. Who knows? These are strange times.