Lists of potential successors to Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg began to appear almost as soon as he walked through the doors of number of Number 10 with David Cameron nearly four years ago. The same names have featured time and time again ever since, and now some of the leading contenders are doing more than just riding the speculation.
Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander landed another blow against Business Secretary Vince Cable recently by being the Lib Dem who declared Scotland could not keep the pound if it went independent. The announcement firmed up his position as the ranking member on economics at the expense of Cable.
Alexander is well known to fancy a run at succeeding close ally Clegg. Sources say he was wary of having a big hitter take the deputy leadership of the party, so he was probably delighted that the winner was fellow Scot Sir Malcolm Bruce, who is standing down in 2015.
Alexander brought in a new advisor at the end of last year, Peter Carroll, who was behind the successful campaign fronted by actress Joanna Lumley, and supported by the Lib Dems, to get Gurkha soldiers residence in the UK. Carroll is said to be sharpening up Danny Alexander’s internal politics, as he is not that popular amongst the activist base. As one source puts it, Alexander is “putting the team together.”
The other obvious leadership candidate is lefty party president Tim Farron.
Beloved by Lib Dem activists, Farron did blot his copybook with many when he failed to vote for gay marriage. There are mutterings of gay Lib Dem MPs who will actively seek to stop Farron succeeding Clegg as a result. Farron also clearly has a strong infrastructure in place, and good access to the party’s grassroots thanks to his current role, which sees him travelling around the country meeting local parties.
What of the once much vaunted Saint Vince Cable?
His stock has dropped considerably since entering government. One senior Lib Dem source described him as “a very good cabinet minister,” but that is rather damning with faint praise. Around 18 months ago, there could have been a coup that inserted the Business Secretary as Liberal Democrat leader, but Cable has had his wings severely clipped in recent months, and it’s hard to see now how he can soar to the top of his party.
His decline has been dramatic. Cable overplayed his hand at the previous Lib Dem conference when he took far too long to back the party leadership’s position on the economy. His parliamentary aide, Tessa Munt MP, became so exasperated with her boss’s behaviour that she ended up shouting at Cable in a conference hotel corridor. There have been talks subsequently to bring Cable on side, but it would now be hard for him to claim his party’s top job in anything other than a caretaker capacity.
Indeed, it seems the left of the Lib Dems are turning in on themselves, with both their hopes, Vince Cable and Pensions Minister Steve Webb, facing pressure from leftist membership group the Social Liberal Forum. Cable is largely responsible for the mess over student tuition fees by failing to properly name them a graduate tax, while Webb is number two to Iain Duncan Smith and had to defend changes to housing benefits.
Pending total wipe out and panic after elections this May, Nick Clegg will see his party into the 2015 general election. But he clearly will not go on forever, and given the volatile nature of coalition politics, his potential successors are well on the way to getting their campaigns in place.