20 December 2018
The Party of the Third Part
Exit for Vince?
One reputed test, applied by anxious doctors to patients whose minds seem to be straying, is to ask them who the Prime Minister is. Or, where that might perhaps offend, the Leader of the Opposition. Just as well it is not the name of the leader of the third party. Who, indeed, might that be in these times? The third largest party at Westminster by a long head, are the Scottish Nationalists, with 35 seats, led by – no, steady, no, not Nicola Sturgeon, who has to yell from outside the tent with no seat at Westminster, but Ian Blackford, representative of that far flung and beautiful constituency, Ross, Skye, and Lochaber. Next is a tie with eleven seats each, between the Lib-Dems, Sir Vince Cable’s mini-bus load of survivors and the Ulster unionists (not Unionists). For the sake of history, and as Lady Hermon who sits for North Down is not a member of the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party but sits as an independent, we will give the Lib-Dems fourth place, if only on a technicality.
The Liberals have been reduced to less than a mini-bus load before; to, indeed, a taxi sized party in the past, six M.P.s in the 1950’s and again in 1970, only to come storming back under the leadership of Charles Kennedy in 2005 (62 seats) and Nick Clegg in 2010 (54). Students of politics will protest that this does not reflect the strength of the Liberal vote in the country and they are right; the electoral system has been unkind to the Libs who in 1974, 1983, and 2010 got between 20 and 30% of the vote, but only in 2010 came anywhere near a reasonable reflection in the House of Commons. But in a way, it is not so unfair; the British electoral system enables the electorate to keep out the parties they don’t want, rather than manufacturing coalitions of the not terribly popular.
But surely the hour must be nigh, the tides running to a flow. The Conservatives, so many commentators assure us, are deeply unpopular, a party at war with itself, out of touch, badly led, adrift from their roots. And the voters won’t, we are assured, turn to Mr Corbyn and his Momentum driven tendencies; the great British public does not like extremists, especially ones who will increase the tax burden. UKIP is almost gone, waiting only for Mr Farage to complete the burial ceremony. The SNP is a regional party, a problem for Mr Corbyn to be sure by removing Labours natural hegemony of recent years in Scotland, but a localised distraction.
Which leaves the Liberals, the traditional home of protest votes and polite urge for change, change in a carefully driven Volvo format. Indeed, the tradition in British politics is that at this point the Liberals, or Lib-Dems if you must, are level pegging in the opinion polls and winning every by-election, whoever the previous incumbent. So now the time must be for Sir Vince to consider putting an option on at least a couple of coaches for use after the next election, maybe even double-deckers?
The by-election test has not yet come in this Parliament, and Mrs May at least must be hoping it doesn’t, but the opinion polls do not suggest any surge for Sir V and his merry crew. Why should that be? The times for them are not just right, but surely perfect. 48.1% of Referendum voters voted to Remain, and if there is one cause that the Lib-Dems cleave longingly to, it is the European project. And most Remainers would characterise themselves as moderates and with tendencies to the centre of British politics; with a very Left Labour Party, and a very fissured Conservative Party, the Libs must be the answer to many voters dreams, surely? The coalition did the Lib-Dems no good at all of course, the compromises necessary to day to day administration bringing too much daylight into the dreams of many decades, but that is history now. The leaders associated with those bad old days are scattered far and wide, even unto California, and the Cableites are the face of kind moderation and sweet reason. Well, they like to think so.
But it does not seem to be working. Polite protest seems to hold no attractions. The Tories continue to lead in the polls, with about 40%, and Labour on 38%. The Liberals are on around 9% and the regional parties account for the balance. That means if there were an election now the Lib-Dems would probably hold just those seats they do now. There is no real stronghold left for them; traditionally what kept the party in Westminster was its historic and very strong loyalties in the Celtic fringes; Cornwall, Wales, western Scotland, and the Scottish Borders. The SNP and Plaid Cymru have mostly done for the semi-nationalist votes, and Cornwall has fallen to the demographic movement of retirees from the rich south eastern suburbs who bring their Tory habits with them. All that remains are a few strong local candidates in seats which might be best described as seats normally Conservative but where Remainers of both Labour and Tory persuasion voted for their cause rather than their party. These are mainly in south-west London, and include Sir Vince’s own seat of Twickenham, which he lost in 2015 but got back the following year.
Readers paying close attention will notice that we have not attempted to answer our own question: why are the Lib-Dems not resurgent? That cannot be evaded any longer, and we humbly suggest that the answer is very simple. Sir V Cable. Sir Vincent may well be the only sitting Lib-Dem M.P. that you have actually heard of, unless you are exceptionally interested in UK politics, or live in a current Lib-Dem seat. But, with no doubt the exception of his neighbours, his family, and his dog, he has not been taken to the hearts of the great British public. Whilst WE Gladstone, who he does rather resemble, became in old age a great if controversial hero, this seems to have passed Vince by. Even his appearance on Strictly Come Dancing in 2010 with a highly praised fox trot did nothing to create a public fervour. And as party leader he has been almost invisible.
Part of the art of success in politics is to seize the flood tide, but Sir V has, it seems, just let it wash over him. He indeed shows all the signs of a man who is just not very interested in achieving power any more. He keeps a low profile and his twitter contributions, whilst written in perfect English, lack the impact of those of a certain American President. There are no policy formulations of startling originality, no radical announcements, no news grabbing speeches or campaigns. In short, the Lib-Dems seem to have vanished from the ether.
The last thing this column will ever be is ageist, and we could polish endless theories on how age and experience will always trump energy and youth. But, Sir Vincent is 75, and with greatest respect, perhaps the time has come to, well, you know, spend more time polishing his dancing shoes. His party, to which he has devoted much of his life, needs a surge of energy, ideas, life. Time to waltz off, Vince.