How do you rebuild a political party after an electoral calamity? That was the question facing the Liberal Democrats when deciding who should replace Nick Clegg as their leader.
Now the party has chosen Tim Farron to replace Clegg – a decision that could help bring back a spirit of optimism in a party battered by five years of government with the Conservatives.
After being reduced from 57 MPs in 2010 to just eight in 2015 – numbers reminiscent of the Liberal Party of the 1950s – the Lib Dems now face a difficult path back to political significance, let alone power.
In his book Choosing A Leader Leonard Stark suggests three criteria by which political parties select candidates for the top spot. They need acceptability, electability and competence. Successful leadership candidates, he argues, must demonstrate that they are ideologically acceptable to their parties and capable of winning elections and implementing their policies. While electability is the ultimate test of political leadership, this leadership came down to a choice between acceptability and competence.
Farron was the clear favourite from the start. The former party president was the ideologically acceptable candidate because his position outside the coalition government left him free to act as the tribune of the Liberal Democrat grassroots.
As early as 2011 Farron had told the party’s annual conference that he felt his role as president was to “sell the undiluted Liberal Democrat standpoint … not to be an apologist for everything the coalition does”. And he was certainly as good as his word, awarding his party a mark of just two out of ten for its handling of coalition government.
But if Farron’s critique of the coalition won him plenty of admirers among activists, it did not always win him friends among his parliamentary colleagues. Just weeks before the election Vince Cable said Farron’s criticism of the coalition “wasn’t at all helpful”. He warned that his lack of ministerial experience meant he would “not be seen as a very credible leader”. What was needed, Cable insisted, were “people who are seen to be competent and reliable”.
Other Lib Dem MPs apparently shared his concerns. One unnamed party figure reportedly said he might be the first choice to speak at a constituency dinner but not necessarily to negotiate a coalition.
Lamb was, by contrast, was the competence candidate. He had a relatively low profile before being appointed minister for care and support in September 2012, which appeared to transform his political prospects. He remained a largely unknown figure to the average voter but gained a reputation within government as a quietly effective minister. He was respected by Liberal Democrat and Conservative colleagues alike.
But in other respects Lamb’s politics were more distant from those of ordinary party members. While both he and Farron remained aloof from the ideological debates triggered by the controversial Orange Book, Lamb has been widely identified as being from the economic liberal wing of the party – which puts him at odds with a considerable chunk of the Liberal Democrat grassroots.
Farron has positioned himself on the social liberal left of the party. His leadership will have a significant impact on both the style and substance of the Liberal Democrats in the next five years.
His track-record as a campaigning MP suggests that he may be able to carve out a more distinctive ideological position for his party, and his leadership may also manage to restore a feel-good factor to the grassroots which was largely absent during the years of coalition government.
But the question remains – if Farron were to lead his party into coalition after the next election, would he be able to negotiate a deal that scored more than two out of ten?