By Angela Harbutt
I read an interesting article on Nick Barlow’s blog a few days ago, posing the question, “What if Nick Clegg loses his seat at the election”.
In the natural order of things, the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party, the RT Hon Sir Malcolm Bruce MP would become “acting leader” until the party could set up and run a full leadership contest. But the problem, staring us all in the face is that Malcolm is standing down at this election. Come May 8th, the Lib Dems may well not have a Leader or a Deputy Leader.
In light of the Deputy Leader’s decision not to stand for re-election, it is a question I too have been considering in recent weeks. After all, Nick’s Sheffield Hallam seat is by no means “safe” and the distinct possibility of yet another coalition of some sort looms large, given the current polling figures. Like Nick Barlow, I have no idea if the Leader will lose his seat, nor indeed do I have perfect insight into how the political landscape will look come May 8th. It is entirely possible, given the lamentable state of the Labour Party and the utterly appalling personal ratings of its hapless leader, that the Conservative Party will, in the weeks to come, surge ahead and end up with a clear (if small) majority.
Nick Barlow and I are not alone. Earlier this month, Matthew Norman wrote in the Independent that (a) “it is likelier than ever that the Liberal Democrats will retain the balance of power, even with a massively shrunken parliamentary presence” and (b) ” there is a serious chance that the Lord Haw-Haw of tuition fees will lose his student-laden seat.” He too asked the inevitable question. If Nick does lose his seat
“who will enter coalition talks as Lib Dem interim leader, and how might that person be chosen?”
Just in case people think that the Lib Dems are total idiots, the Lib Dems have an appointed 2015 negotiating team, for better or worse, consisting of Danny Alexander MP, Steve Webb MP, Lynne Featherstone MP, David Laws MP and Baroness Sal Brinton (President of the British Liberal Democrats). Of course, 4 of the 5 negotiators are MPs seeking re-election. Come May 8th it may be that 2 or 3 of these are likewise searching for new lines of work. Can a negotiating team really go into battle with 4 out of 5 of them now outside of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party? Well that kind of depends on the strength of the leader.
So the question we must address is who does this team report to? Who will be the Leader if Nick does lose Sheffield Hallam?
Nick Barlow suggests a kind of Lib Demmy coup d’état – whereby those Lib Dem MPs still standing, meet up pretty pronto (Friday) and quickly elect a leader (or “acting leader”) amongst themselves, with the Federal Executive meeting a day later (Saturday) to “authorise” the Parliamentary Party’s choice. He argues, quite reasonably, that this procedure could be adopted in a case where force majeure applies (misplacing both your Leader and Deputy Leader does surely count as force majeure).
I don’t agree with Nick Barlow’s proposal. Sure, I reckon that all Lib Dem MPs can (and probably will) congregate in one place on Friday 8th – but whether they can agree on a new leader in a matter of minutes or hours is another issue all together. And please NO NO NO to getting the Federal Executive to “authorise” anything!
But at least Nick Barlow has the cojones to put forward an idea.
Think about it. Imagine a scenario where, in the wee small hours of May 8th, it becomes clear that the Conservatives are going to be 20 seats short of the finishing post. David Cameron surely gets onto the phone to Nick and asks if the Lib Dems are willing to open negotiations of some kind. In Nick Barlow’s scenario Nick will have to say “sorry Dave, I lost my seat. I reckon that by teatime the Parliamentary Party should have elected a new interim leader – fingers crossed – but I don’t know who that will be – do you mind hanging on for a while whilst they sort things out. Good luck, someone will get back to you”.
Later that day, and after much wrangling, an Acting Leader is selected by the Parliamentary Party – but wait, the Lib Dems still can’t open negotiations because the Federal Executive haven’t endorsed it yet!
OK, you say, but we have a negotiating team that can get to work on Friday morning. No they can’t. If Nick has lost his seat, he can’t send them in, and without a leader they have no authority. No leader (Labour or Conservative) worth his salt is going to agree that his party sits down with what amounts to a random bunch of “Lib Dem folks”, of which only one or two are actual members of the Parliamentary Party. The Conservatives may as well approach 20 individual Lib Dem MPs one by one and see if they can get to the magic 20 or so required.
In this option, at best the world is put on hold whilst the Lib Dems scramble around “trying to find a leader” and are rightfully ridiculed by the media, rival political parties and the wider public as they do so. At worst the Lib Dems are by-passed as Mr Cameron sees if another solution is available in short order – one that perhaps involves the DUP/UKIP (and maybe a handful of Lib Dem MPs with the courage of their convictions to get on with it).
Taking into account how the real world operates (something I know many Lib Dems are loathed to do), I would like to offer up two further options if Nick loses his seat.
Option 1. Retain the elected Lib Dem leader – Nick Clegg- as acting leader during the course of any coalition negotiations and see the party through until a new leader and deputy leader can be found by due process. After all it will be his negotiating team (or what’s left of them) who may have to go into battle with the Conservatives or Labour, and who knows better the ins and outs of the system than him? Ok, it may break half a dozen Lib Dem constitutional clauses, but if this is a case where force majeure applies, I don’t think keeping Nick in charge has any less validity than a proposing to exclude the entire membership from the process. (See how Ed Miliband likes that one!). By the way, I reckon (though I am not a constitutional expert) that until either David Cameron or Ed Miliband goes to the Queen, Nick Clegg is still the Deputy Prime Minister of this country. But correct me if I am wrong.
Option 2. My preferred option. Technically the full title of the Deputy Leader is the “Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons” and is elected only by the Parliamentary Party (the MPs – no Federal Executive or other committee “authorisation” required). And yes, that person would become the “acting leader” in the event that the current leader was indisposed.
There is nothing to stop the Lib Dem MPs electing a new Deputy Leader at any point. Would it not make sense for the MPs to get together sooner rather than later to elect a new Deputy Leader? Someone who is likely to hold their seat; Norman Lamb, Tim Farron, or Alistair Carmichael, for example. (If these guys don’t get re-elected the “negotiating committee” will be the entirety of the remaining Lib Dem MPs).
OK OK I get that the media would have a field day if this was seen as a panic measure by the Lib Dems to find possible stand-in for Nick in the dying days of the election campaign. But it need not be managed that haphazardly. The lovely Malcolm Bruce can make this happen all by himself.
If Malcolm should independently decide to stand down as Deputy Leader, say as, or just before, Parliament rises (end of March), the Lib Dems would have no choice but to elect a new Deputy Leader. This can be quick and easy and, providing MPs elect someone with a darned good chance of retaining their seat, all would surely be peachy? This person then has a good few weeks – not hours – to prep him or herself on what may be required in the event that Nick does lose his seat and one of the two main parties come calling. I am sure there would still be some cat-calling in the media – but this could be easily answered, and everyone would move on.
Whether you like one of my options or Nick Barlow’s option, at least they are options. The question we should all be asking, I think, is why on earth the Lib Dem hierarchy seems not to have tackled this before now? The Lib Dems have more committees than you can shake a stick at – surely one of them should have come up with a solution? It is not like we haven’t known for some time that the Deputy Leader is stepping down, or that Nick may lose his seat.
The inevitable response to this question from within the Lib Dems has been to say “Please, please don’t let’s waste time on all this, just get out and deliver some leaflets or do phone canvassing“. Like Nick Barlow I find “the ‘don’t think, just deliver leaflets’ mantra” ridiculous. It is exactly why this party is dying on its feet.
Because this issue DOES matter. The leader, or acting leader, of the Lib Dems may well be in a position to determine who the next Prime Minister of this country will be. If that is not important, what is? A great many voters, me included, want to know which one of two people will be charge of any possible negotiations BEFORE they vote, not after. And we certainly want to be reassured that a vote for the Lib Dems is not a vote for chaos on May 8th as they rush around trying to find someone take charge.
If Liberal Democrat Party can’t tell us what its plans are to solve this relatively simple problem – worse, by its silence, show that it has no plan, why should anyone trust them to be part of any government?
, lib dems
, Liberal Democrats
, Matthew Norman
, Nick Barlow
, Nick Clegg MP
, Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Bruce MP