Soon we get to find out who the Liberal Democrat MPs have chosen as deputy leader. Who they choose matters, but not a huge amount.
There is a famous quote about how the role of Vice President of the USA is “not worth a pitcher of warm piss”. How much then is the Deputy Leadership of the Liberal Democrats worth? Especially as it comes without a role in government.
There has been some exaggerated talk about the importance of this role. Not least from the two candidates themselves. The demands that the holder of the post should be elected by an all member ballot being especially silly.
Let us be clear – Nick Clegg is Leader of the Liberal Democrats and leader of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party. This role is to be deputy leader of the parliamentary party only. This is a Westminster role and has it’s significance in a Westminster context.
There are other Liberal Democrat leaders across the country. In Europe, Scotland, Wales and local government who have the authority to lead in their particular sphere of influence. In the Party as a whole any Deputy Leader would be out ranked by the Party President.
If the eventual winner tonight seeks to turn this role into something it is not I warn them that they will come a cropper. They should steer well clear of any pretensions they may have to be “the leader outside the government”. That is not say that the role won’t be significant, and more so than in the past.
The parliamentary party has a lot of work to do to adapt the way it works to the new context of coalition government and find ways to retain an independent voice. As has the Party as a whole. The role of Deputy Leader will be important in this. There is a need for a conduit between the backbenches and the frontbenches, between the party in government and the party in the country, and between Liberal Democrats in government and the voters.
So it should not be an organisational role. Establishing and running a team of backbench spokespeople is a bad, and potentially dangerous, idea. Instead it should focus on communication. If the winner tonight concentrates on that they have the potential to be an important and influential actor on a very big stage.
So who should it be?
In Tim Farron and Simon Hughes we have two highly impressive and charismatic politicians. I like and admire both of them and in truth would be content with either of them. But if I had a choice I would vote for Farron.
I am and always have been a big Simon Hughes fan but so often that admiration has been tinged with apprehension and disappointment. I would have the same feelings for him in this role. He is also in this contest the predictable establishment choice. In a funny way he is the “safe bet”. Yet the last thing we should be doing now is playing it safe.
There is also, this being a communications role, the need to catch the mood of the country and set the right tone. One of the problems with the coalition government that is already obvious is that it feels too southern and priveleged. It would be very helpful if parts of the Liberal Democrats could differentiate themselves from that. While Simon Hughes has always been a powerful defender of the poor and disadvantaged, my reckoning is that the comprehensive school lad from Cumbria would be better able to make that contrast. Farron is also funnier. So on that basis my vote would be for him.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.