17 Sep 2013 at 20:21
The Liberal Democrats have proved remarkable disciplined over the last year. There is now no likelihood of any challenge to Nick Clegg’s leadership before the 2015 election, even though his poll ratings remain at rock bottom. Retaining the Eastleigh seat vacated by Chris Huhne helped to steady nerves in February, and although in terms of vote share the local elections in May were the party’s worst ever, the chunks torn out of the Tory vote by Ukip helped to save dozens of Lib Dem councillors their seats. Now, as the party gears up for the general election, Clegg’s increasing readiness to disagree with his Tory ministerial colleagues is proving popular with Lib Dem activists – though whether this will help him convince them to “occupy the centre ground”, as he puts it, remains to be seen.
Two years ago we described the ranking of 2011’s top 50 as “the rise of the Left”. This year a more apposite title could be “the revenge of the Orange Bookers”, as Clegg stays at number one and sees two key allies rise to numbers two and three. Sidekick Danny Alexander, the other Lib Dem member of the Quad which takes the key coalition decisions (it includes Clegg, David Cameron and George Osborne) rises two places to number two, while David Laws, co-editor of the economic liberals’ bible, The Orange Book, the brains behind Cleggism and returnee to ministerial office last year, shoots up to number three, due to his appointment as chair of the key election manifesto group, which – Lib Dems hope – will be writing the negotiating mandate for the next coalition. And straight in at number six is Ryan Coetzee, Clegg’s Director of Strategy and former MP for the South African Democratic Alliance, brought in to apply some polling-evidence rigour to the party’s appeal. No fewer than seven other places are occupied by Clegg staffers.
The main losers are mostly on the Left of the party. Down goes Party President Tim Farron, who annoyed many activists by his failure to back same-sex marriage, and Simon Hughes, conscience of the party, who’s had a quiet year. Also falling is Shirley Williams, gradually edging towards retirement, and rent-a-quotes Matthew Oakeshott – increasingly marginalised – and Evan Harris, who drops out entirely, mostly because of his focus on the Hacked Off campaign at the expense of party rabble-rousing. Down too is Vince Cable, not really on the Left (he was an Orange Booker too), but always willing to criticise his Tory colleagues in public, which scores points with party members, but fails to compensate for his lacklustre ministerial record. Very few now see him as a credible leader-in-waiting.
And yet, being Lib Dems, the awkward squad are still around. Cerebral scientist and Cambridge MP Julian Huppert rises two places thanks to his trenchant defence of civil liberties. Social-liberal thinker Duncan Brack returns to the top 50 as vice chair of the manifesto group – carefully balancing Laws – and Leeds MP Greg Mulholland is a new entry because of his self-appointed role as convenor of the Lib Dem awkward squad in the Commons. Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of the Lib Dems in the Local Government Association, rises 16 places; there may be fewer Lib Dem councillors left after three years of coalition, but they are still hugely important in this most localist of parties. Paddy Ashdown, who climbs to number five thanks to his role as Election Campaign Chair, is hardly a friend to the Tories, though he has always proved loyal to his leader.Apart from Cable, and Jeremy Browne, who seems to have disappeared without trace inside the Home Office, the Lib Dem ministerial team have remained fairly stable in our rankings over the last 12 months; rising stars include Norman Lamb, who has a unique ability to generate positive news from the Department of Health. The smart money for the next leadership contenders, though, remains on Ed Davey (establishment) versus Tim Farron (grassroots).
The Lib Dems continue to struggle to show much diversity among their leading figures. Only 10 women feature in the 50 – actually two fewer than last year, with the highest rating being the party’s two female ministers Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone at numbers 15 and 16. However, the party can celebrate the entry of two men from ethnic minority backgrounds. The shortly-to-be ennobled businessman Rumi Verjee (in at number 46) funded the party’s Leadership Programme, which aims to improve its parliamentary representation from under-represented groups. Maajid Nawaz, a newcomer at number 50, is one of the most interesting in the list, as a former self-styled Islamic extremist, imprisoned and tortured in Mubarak’s Egypt, who underwent a wholesale change of heart and is now Executive Director of Quilliam, the world’s first counter-extremism think tank – and a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate.