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This Charming Man

September 17th 2018

Aung San Suu Kyi has a Nobel Peace Prize. Morrissey created a hymnal to the sorrows of working class difference. Harvey Weinstein has quite a few Oscar winners to his name. It is possible to have been a force for good or for truth or for creative achievement and then to not be, later. The Lib Dems enter their conference in a bind. They are led by a man who was once the undisputed king of moral authority in British politics. He had predicted the recession. He had compared Gordon Brown to Stalin. He could dance the tango and he had emanated decency. ‘Had’. ‘Did’. ‘Could’. The problem with Vince Cable is that every reason for him to be the leader of the Liberal Democrats is a past participle. No-one talks about him or his party in the present tense. At the same time, other than Brexit what do the Lib Dems have to say?


Are they the anti-intervention and anti-austerity party of Charles Kennedy? Or are they the centrist managers of Nick Clegg? What political clothes do they feel comfortable in? Or is it all merely drag for pro-Europeanism? To be fair to Vince he knows this, at least partly. That is why he has announced his eventual resignation. And that is why he is trying to smooth a path for something different when the time comes to pick his replacement. That is what the Lib Dem conference will be obsessed by - what happens next? A motion to change the rules on who can vote and who can stand when a leadership election comes will dominate this week. Cable wants any ‘registered supporter’ to be able to vote.

He wants non-MPs to be able to stand. To the chagrin of many party staffers and supporters, Gina Miller - the controversial anti-Brexit campaigner - will give a speech to conference immediately after a debate on Europe. Many think this is her being lined up as a future leader. And this is the existential dilemma that the Lib Dems are (in the most passivist way possible, of course) wrestling with this week. They need to be relevant and so they are toying with making their leadership an X-Factor style popularity contest. But no-one watches the X-Factor anymore. And they risk recreating every factor that has led Labour to where it is today. Vince is trying to make his party something more than it is. He’s a charming man. But it doesn’t have a stitch to wear.