- Voting closes on Wednesday in the contest to be next leader of the Liberal Democrats.
- Caretaker leader Ed Davey is the bookmakers’ favourite in the race alongside fellow Member of Parliament Layla Moran.
- However, party sources say the contest is unpredictable and could be very close.
- The new leader will face a huge challenge in rebuilding the party’s confidence and purpose after the demoralising result of the December general election.
- “It wasn’t just a bad result – it deflated what was a big return of optimism to the party and we have been struggling ever since,” ex-leader Sir Vince Cable told Business Insider.
- Both candidates agree that the Liberal Democrats should work with Labour leader Keir Starmer to defeat Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
- The winner will be announced on Thursday morning.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The Liberal Democrats will on Thursday announce their new leader as the pro-European party attempts to regain its confidence after a disappointing set of results in last December’s UK general election.
After three months of campaigning, the party will on Thursday decide who should be tasked with breathing new life into the party after their anti-Brexit stance failed to make the sort of breakthrough many had predicted.
Either Ed Davey of Layla Moran will be announced as the new leader at 11:30 am tomorrow and party figures believe the contest could be on a knife-edge as ballots close on Wednesday.
The party, encouraged by strong polling earlier in the year, went into December’s election pledging to stop Brexit and hoping for major gains. However, despite increasing its vote share by over 4%, the Liberal Democrats ended up with one fewer seat in the House of Commons and then-leader Jo Swinson losing her own seat to Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party.
Speaking to Business Insider this week, the party’s former leader Sir Vince Cable said the result in December had crushed the party’s spirit after “spectacular” results in local and European elections earlier in the year.
“The party is not in a good place and it’d be dishonest and ridiculous to pretend it is,” he told Insider.
“The impact of the general election was really bad. It wasn’t just a bad result – it deflated what was a big return of optimism to the party and we have been struggling ever since.”
With the Liberal Democrats currently languishing at around 6% in the opinion polls, the victor faces a challenge in making the party relevant again.
Davey, a former carer, has vowed to make the Liberal Democrats the party of social care, describing the Conservative government’s handling of care homes during the coronavirus pandemic as “negligence on a dramatic scale.” Moran, who has warned the party that it faces a “revival or irrelevance,” wants to lead on education and has caught the eye with radical policies like Universal Basic Income. She also chairs an all-party parliamentary group on the government’s response to the coronavirus ahead of a potential second wave this winter.
Sources close to Davey and Moran expect it to be close, with some suggesting the pair could be separated by just a few percentage points, with the result possibly as tight as the 2007 contest when Nick Clegg won by a margin of just 511 votes. A close result would represent a major turnaround for Moran, who in January was far behind Davey in a YouGov poll of members.
Davey, the party’s caretaker leader, is the bookies’ favourite having secured the backing of most of the party’s MPs, including a surprise nomination from highly-rated Daisy Cooper. A member of Parliament of over 20 years and former minister in the last coalition government, Davey’s pitch has focused on his campaigning experience. He told Business Insider he was the best-placed candidate to “get the party winning again” after the disappointment of the snap election in December.
However, Moran says only she can deliver a clean break from the party’s controversial past as unlike Davey, she did not serve in government with the Conservatives. Her campaign got off to a shaky start when in an interview with Business Insider, she vowed to be “more radical” than the Labour Party, a statement that was seized on by opponents as a plan to be more left-wing than Labour. Sources close to the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon say she has enjoyed momentum in the final few weeks of the campaign, winning over undecided members and previous backers of Davey.
However, party officials and both campaigns admit that in the absence of official polling of members, it is difficult to say with confidence exactly how the contest looks heading into the announcement on Thursday.
Cable told Business Insider he was “genuinely torn” over who to vote for. He said Davey was a “very competent guy” who is “economically very literate” and has a “very good track record on environmental issues.” However, he added that Moran is “very good, very sparky,” an “impressive operator,” and appeals to members “who want a fresh, new approach,” Cable said.
A major talking point during the contest has been how the Liberal Democrats should position itself in relation to the opposition Labour party. As discussed in The New Statesman, with the vast majority of seats the party can realistically win at the next election held by Conservatives, both Davey and Moran agree that the Liberal Democrats should be a centre-left party, taking the fight to what they see as a Conservative party that has lurched further to the right under Boris Johnson.
Cable told Business Insider that Starmer being Labour leader was a “good thing” for the Liberal Democrats as “it’s easier to function as an anti-Tory opposition party when you’re dealing with a Labour Party that is electable.”
“One of the big problems we had at the December election was that in the target seats controlled by Conservatives, the dominant mood was ‘we like the Lib Dems and agree with you on Europe, but we can’t possibly risk having Corbyn run the government.’ A lot of those soft Tory Remainers stuck with the Conservatives,” he said.
Cable said the next leader of the Liberal Democrats should establish an “implicit understanding” with Labour that the priority at the next general election is defeating Conservative candidates, not each other. “Our future with Labour is complimentary, not competitive,” he said.
Whoever wins on Thursday will inherit a party scarred by December and faced with questions about its long-term viability. But as Liberal Democrat figures like to stress, the party is second in 91 seats and has four years to rebuild until the next general election. The challenge facing the new leader may be large, but it is not insurmountable.