Tim Farron announced his unexpected resignation six days after the General Election. The Liberal Democrats gained three seats, but lost key players Nick Clegg and Sarah Olney. In the face of the “youthquake” that fuelled Labour’s rise, and because of a failure to captivate the target Remain audience, it was clear that the Lib Dem’s had not capitalised on Andrew Marr’s evaluation that it was their “chance of a lifetime”.
Having been “repeatedly pressed” on his views about homosexuality throughout the campaign, Farron resigned on the basis that maintaining his Christian faith was incompatible with leading the party. He said: “To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me”. The party is now facing its second search for a new leader in the last two years.
Former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills, Sir Vince Cable, is the front runner to replace Farron. The “Sage of Twickenham” has enjoyed a significant public profile since the financial crash a decade ago and has dismissed criticisms about his age (74), describing it as “an asset” and arguing that his experience would bring stability to the party at a time of “chronic uncertainty”. Cable has acknowledged that the Liberals’ “relentless focus on opposing Brexit” did not resonate with voters and suggested the path forward is to mimic Macron and his message of “hope and inspiration”.
Newly returned MP for East Dunbartonshire, Jo Swinson, was thought to be a strong contender due to her experience and the fact she would be a “young, fresher, female voice”. However, she ruled herself out of the race saying that although “most blokes in my shoes would run for leader like a shot”, “it doesn’t make it the right thing to do”. Instead she stood for Deputy Leader, to which she said was unanimously elected. Party sources have suggested that if elected, Vince Cable would seek to hold the role for a few years before handing over power because “the future is Jo Swinson”. Commenting on the rumours he said: “There is no deal, she is doing it for her own reasons in her own time… It is a simple fact of life if I decided in three years’ time to let someone else take over she is ideally placed to do it”.
Former Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, announced he would not stand for the position for personal reasons. Noting his son’s severe disability, he said he wanted to protect his children from the “inevitable intrusion” into their lives and spend more time at home. He did however stress that he has “come back to Westminster more determined than ever to campaign hard for the party… but not to campaign to lead the party”.
Liberal MP for North Norfolk, Norman Lamb, ruled himself out of the competition for leader after expressing interest in the position on Question Time. He said that a “gruelling campaign” to retain his seat in the General Election had convinced him that the party is risking becoming “out of touch” with voters over Brexit. He has called on the Liberals to work with other parties to secure “the least damaging Brexit” and defied the party whip by abstaining on the Article 50 vote.
The deadline for applications is Thursday 20th July and the new leader will be announced on 13th September following a members’ vote. However, unless another credible candidate materialises in the next fortnight, it is likely Sir Vince will secure the position unopposed.
Meanwhile, another leadership election for another small party is also taking place.
Paul Nuttall has been leader of the UKIP since November 2016. Following a devastating General Election result for the party, which saw their vote share reduced by 26.1%, Nuttall resigned stating that: “It is clear that UKIP requires a new focus, new ideas and a new energy - and it is there amongst out ranks”.
Writing in the Telegraph over the weekend, Nigel Farage ruled out a fourth UKIP leadership stint “for now”, acknowledging that the number of times had had resigned and subsequently changed his mind was “already something of an ongoing joke”. He did however declare an enduring commitment to “the Brexit battle”, warning that if the UK Government fails to deliver Brexit properly he will “not hesitate” in throwing himself back into frontline domestic politics.
Farage ally, member of the London Assembly and former UKIP Deputy, Peter Whittle, is a favourite to succeed Nuttall. The former TV producer is adamant the party has a “bright future” and said its focus will be immigration and the "threat of radical Islam".
Anne Marie Waters launched her leadership bid last weekend in Rotherham, and in a surprising move UKIP itself discouraged party members from attending. She is the Deputy Leader of the UK branch of Pegida (a far right anti-Islamist group endorsed by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders), founder of the Sharia Watch pressure group and friend of the English Defence League. Waters has long aired anti-Islam views, and during the 2015 election she described the religion as “evil”. The influx of over 1,000 new members in the last two weeks has led to fears within the party of a “takeover by far-right forces”. Commentators are confident that her election would herald the end of UKIP as a “mainstream political force” and force “mass resignations” of existing UKIP politicians as the party morphed into a BNP-like entity.
Scottish UKIP Leader and MEP, David Coburn, also expressed his interest in leading the party, as he has done previously. Announcing his candidacy on Twitter, he stated his aim was to “stop entryists, dilettantes and single issue loonies” and return to the “good old days” when there was no “pashmina sofa politics”. He did however say he would not challenge Nigel Farage if he chose to return to his old position.
Former Conservative and UKIP Councillor for South Gloucestershire, Ben Walker, has also launched a leadership bid and hopes to “steer the party back towards its grassroots members” as he believes UKIP “is still relevant”.
MEP for the West Midlands Region, Bill Etheridge, and UKIP Councillor in Thanet District Council, Chris Wells, have both said they will consider standing if Farage cannot be persuaded.
Nominations for the contest close on Friday 28th July, a final candidate list will be published on Friday 18th August and the new leader is expected to be announced at the party’s Annual Conference on Friday 29th September.
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