There’s not a vacancy, of course.
And nobody’s talking about a vacancy.
We’re all backing Nick. Some of us still dust down the “I agree with Nick” banners, T-shirts and badges. They bring a tear to the eye. They remind us of those dreamy days when, with just a couple of weeks to go to polling day, the LibDems were at over 30% in a cluster of opinion polls.
Much has changed since then, of course. If a week’s a long time in politics, a year is, in rough terms, about 52 times as long.
But, most likely, if you had to put your house on it, you’d probably shove it on Nick Clegg leading the party into the next election. And if you knew he wasn’t going to – and have to bet your mortgage on someone else – you’d probably have to edge towards Chris Huhne or Tim Farron as his likely successor.
Every loyalist insists in public, of course, that such tittle tattle is just the media making mischief. But – in our heart of hearts – we know that’s totally disingenuous.
Bar room gossip at party conferences quite often turns to the topic of who the next party leader might be. It’s not plotting. It’s just idle speculation. But that doesn’t make it illegitimate or poisonous.
Everyone involved in politics is interested in how things might “pan out” and telling Jeremy Paxman that you “don’t answer hypothetical questions” is just a cop out. Virtually everything we think about and discuss is based on hypothetical questions.
So, consider this.
Imagine – for whatever reason – that Nick Clegg doesn’t continue as party leader for the next decade. You don’t need the imagination of an Arthur C. Clarke or a J. R. R. Tolkien to see how this might happen. Maybe he just gets cheesed off with the whole thing. Maybe there is some enormous internal party revolt at some stage. Maybe there is some recalibration of the way the Coalition operates. There’s a zillion ways it could happen, even though, on balance, it probably won’t.
Step forward Norman Lamb. He is an almost complete unknown outside of the LibDems. But then so was Nick until the first TV debate.
Crucially, he’s fairly independent. He’s not put all his chips on the Coalition succeeding, which many other possible leadership candidates have had to (partly because, of course, he was shamefully overlooked for ministerial office when the Coalition was formed).
He’s also essentially a party loyalist, but with Orange Book and mildly eurosceptic tendencies.
His television profile is rising. He’s an obvious choice for party-orientated media (by-elections etc) and also strong on his former health portfolio. Yesterday, he broke cover to make a splash on his concerns over the Lansley NHS reforms. Not in the terms of some tedious conservative Luddite, but for fear they hadn’t been fully thought through.
About a year ago, here on this very blog, Norman was described as a media superstar. Objectively he is not that – not yet. He’s occasionally a bit defensive and slightly hesitant. But he does have the common touch and doesn’t talk in jargon. Additionally, I’m not sure that “macho” politicians – displaying Ed Balls-style certainty in the face of all credible evidence to the contrary – are very popular anywhere any more.
He also has a few other things going for him. Typically, LibDems seems to vote for more establishment middle-of-the-road candidates rather than firebrand radicals. Despite their many strengths, Simon Hughes and Chris Huhne have now both lost two leadership elections from “the left”. To run for a third time for the party leadership surely puts one in the “Ken Clarke” position – widely considered charming, but unlikely to ever actually inherit the crown.
The lefty-leaning, charismatic, activist-adored and media savvy Tim Farron, only narrowly defeated the more establishment Susan Kramer for the party’s Presidency last year despite running an enormously more impressive campaign.
Norman also has a pretty hardened and impressive political CV – both at the coal face of Westminster and at the grassroots level. He had to deal with the growing disquiet over Charles Kennedy’s difficulties with alcohol (having been his PPS) – and was one of the very first MPs to publicly call for Charles to quit. He also has the battle scars of the frustrating Ming Campbell period, serving as his chief of staff in troubled times.
At local electoral level, Lamb’s achievements are staggering. He first contested North Norfolk – a rock solid Tory seat with a 10,000 majority in 1992. He cut this to around 1,000 in 1997 and just won it with a majority of 483 in 2001. In 2005, he saw off Tory blogger Iain Dale and increased the LibDem majority by over 2,000%. He increased his majority again in 2010 to an eye-watering 11,626.
If the shift in votes which have occurred in Norman Lamb’s seat since 1992 had been replicated across the country last May, the national vote share in the 2010 General Election would have been LibDem 46% Conservative 20% Labour 17%.
He may need simply to find a little more self-confidence and a bit more steel. And no doubt his surname gives rise to a whole string of dismissive newspaper headlines and dispatch box jibes. But the next time you’re speculating about who might lead the Liberal Democrats next, give Norman Lamb serious consideration.