Each year I assemble a group of experts to compile a list of the top fifty most influential Liberal Democrats; this year, the panel judged their performance since September 2013. Given the party’s awful performance in May – beaten into fifth place by the Greens in the European elections and dropping to their worst ever local election result – it’s striking how little change there’s been at the top of the list, a recognition of the fact that however grim it may prove, the Lib Dems are thoroughly signed up to the coalition right through to the 2015 election. So the top five remain largely unchanged, Paddy Ashdown climbing one place given his role as election campaign supremo.
1. (-) Nick Clegg
Leader of the Liberal Democrats
As every day passes, a little bit of power and influence slips through Nick Clegg’s fingers. He knows he’s got seven months left at the top of British politics before he leaves office. He has two slim hopes of staying as DPM – Bob Hope and no hope. It is almost inconceivable that the Tories would form another coalition with the LibDems and even if Labour did, it would probably be with a new leader. This makes us sad.
2. (-) Danny Alexander
Chief Secretary to the Treasury
There is little doubt that Danny Alexander has more influence over Nick Clegg than anyone. He has grown into his Treasury job and although many LibDems don’t like his Orange Book agenda, he’s proved himself an adept communicator and minister. He will almost certainly be Nick Clegg’s favoured successor, but he’s got an uphill task to get LibDem activists and members onside.
3. (+1) Lord Ashdown
Former Leader of the Liberal Democrats 1988-1999 and Chair of the Lib Dem’s General Election Campaign 2015
As the election draws nearer, Paddy Ashdown is gearing up for one last fight. He is in control of planning the election campaign and by all accounts is treating it like a military operation. Aided by the recently ennobled Olly Grender, he’s got to overcome the dramatic decline in the LibDem activist base, as well as a cynical media. If the LibDems retain more than 50% of their MPs, most observers will think Ashdown has been comparatively successful.
4. (-1) David Laws
Minister of State, Department for Education and the Cabinet Office
Not very popular with the LibDem left, he rivals Danny Alexander in perceptions of ‘right-wingery’. He is in charge of writing the LibDem general election manifesto, which must be one of the most thankless tasks in British politics bearing in mind the consequences of the tuition fees promise last time.
5. (-) Tim Farron
President of the Liberal Democrats
Farron has a big year ahead of him. He has to walk the tightrope of loyalty to his leader, and positioning himself for the election aftermath. He will undoubtedly be a leading candidate to succeed Clegg, but many LibDems wonder where the beef is. He’s got seven months to add some heft to his undoubted debating and motivational abilities.
6. (+1) Jonathan Oates
Chief of Staff to the Deputy Prime Minister
A former PR consultant, Oates has never attracted the headlines and the fact that few outside Downing Street and government know who he is, is a major strength. He runs a very tight ship and it is said that the Clegg office is far more efficient than Camerons. That is down to Oates’s managerial skills. If you want to get to Clegg you have to get to Jonny Oates first. And therein lies his influence.
7. (+9) Lynne Featherstone
Parliamentary Under Secretary, Department for International Development
If Lynne Featherstone’s political career comes to an end in May 2015, she will leave government knowing that she made a difference. The equal marriage legislation was her baby and wouldn’t have happened without her. As a Home Office minister she also pushed the scandal of female genital mutilation to the top of the political and media agenda. If she can retain her seat, she will be a major player in the LibDems’ post-election travails.
8. (+5) Norman Lamb
Minister of State, Department for Health
Possibly the best performing minister the LibDems have got, Lamb is popular even among his Conservative colleagues. Jeremy Hunt speaks highly of him and Tory MPs say he is very accessible. He’s also on top of his portfolio and has been instrumental in pushing mental health up the agenda. One of the few LibDems guaranteed to retain his seat, he could, whisper it, even be a candidate for the top job if some of his higher profile colleagues fall by the wayside. The LibDems could do a lot worse.
9. (+6) Jo Swinson
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills
There are rumours that Nick Clegg is about to undertake a mini-reshuffle and promote the first ever LibDem woman to a British cabinet. That will be Jo Swinson, who is tipped to replace Alastair Carmichael. She would get massive media exposure in Scotland and give her a better chance of retaining her marginal seat. Feisty and sassy, it’s a mystery why she hasn’t reached the top before now.
10. (-) Ed Davey
Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
Ed Davey spends his third year at number ten in this list. Competent, a good debator and with an increasing media profile, he has proved himself an able successor to Chris Huhne at the Department of Energy & Climate Change. Subtly positioning himself for the post election leadership contest, he is very much the safety first candidate, but his popularity across the party makes him a genuine contender.
11. (-3) Vince Cable
Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills
The fall down this list, which started last year continues this year. It’s difficult to think of a single political achievement in government that Cable can boast about in the last 12 months, which will only be remembered for the defenestration of his closest political ally, Lord Oakeshott, following his ill-judged comments after the European elections. Even previous admirers reckon Vince Cable is a busted political flush. Even though he has a massive 12,000 majority in his Twickenham seat, he is said to be nervous about his ability to retain it.
12. (-) Steve Webb
Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions
Quietly spoken, Steve Webb has been a highly effective minister in charge of pensions reform at the DWP. He is the Frank Field of the LibDems, but the difference is, he’s lasted in government and has had four years to implement his ideas. Our panel ranks him in the top three performing LibDem ministers of the coalition.
13. (-4) Alastair Carmichael
Secretary of State for Scotland
A very well-liked figure across the party, Carmichael did well as chief whip, which in the LibDems is the political equivalent of herding cats. It was a role he was well suited to. He was a surprise replacement for Michael Moore last year and was said to be very uncomfortable at the direction of the ‘Better Together’ campaign in Scotland. Indeed, Carmichael was set to resign if the Yes campaign had won the Scottish referendum.
14. (-8) Ryan Coetzee
Special Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister
Appointed two years ago as Nick Clegg’s strategy advisor, the personable Ryan Coetzee made an immediate impact, but our panel detect that he has proved to be more mouth than trousers. It may be that he has an impossible job given the parlous state of the LibDems opinion poll ratings. His main challenge is to persuade the LibDem core voters to stick by the party.
has proved a big hit – just as influential on Clegg as his predecessor, Richard Reeves, but also far more popular and influential on the rest of the party than Reeves was. Coetzee comes from South African where he was both a Member of Parliament and Chief Executive for the Lib Dem’s sister party, the Democratic Alliance. He has taken close control of the party’s polling operation and is pushing hard for the party to have a long-term strategy to increase its core vote.
15. (+2) Norman Baker
Minister of State, Home Office
The maverick’s maverick, Baker is seen as an obsessive, even by his party colleagues. However, as a minister, he has been a surprising success. He’s learnt (for the most part) the art of collective responsibility and could teach is fellow ministers a lesson or two in how to get things done inside government. He’s not afraid to speak favourably of his coalition colleagues, who have developed a real respect for him.
16. (+2) Julian Huppert
LibDem MP for Cambridge
This is the fourth year on the list for this bright, sparky and underrated backbencher. Not afraid to speak out against the party line, he’s what a true parliamentarian should aspire to be. A doughty defender of civil liberties he is seen by many as the inheritor of the Simon Hughes style of liberalism. If any LibDem deserves to hang onto his seat, Huppert does. He makes parliament a better place, despite the fact that The Speaker seems to find it funny to make jokes about him.
17. (+20) Don Foster
LibDem Chief Whip & MP for Bath
Don Foster is standing down at the next election but he shoots up this list because of his influence over the parliamentary party. What a shame it was that he disgracefully allowed the disgraced LibDem MP Mike Hancock to keep the party whip for so long, though.
18. (-4) Simon Hughes
Minister of State for Justice
The former party deputy leader and two time leadership candidate still retains a huge amount of affection within the party and he is still in some way’s the party’s conscience. However, since becoming a minister he’s almost disappeared from view. There is some speculation that Labour might take his Bermondsey seat back, thirty two years after they lost it to Hughes, but if he hangs on, who’s to say that he might not contest the party leadership for a third time?
19. (-) Polly Mckenzie
Senior policy and strategy adviser to Nick Clegg
One of the Lib Dems’ brightest young talents, Polly Mackenzie was Clegg’s senior policy adviser when he was Home Affairs Spokesman and resigned her post to be part of his leadership campaign team. She exercised great influence over policy and wrote Nick Clegg’s important speeches. After the election she was catapulted to the centre of the coalition as deputy to Steve Hilton in Downing Street. Despite two breaks for maternity leave she remains one of Clegg’s closest and most trusted advisers.
20. (+15) Baroness Grender
Paddy Ashdown's Political Co-ordinator
After a successful period as Nick Clegg’s Head of Press covering Lena Pietsch’s maternity leave, she proved herself so indispensable to the Lib Dem operation she was snapped up by Paddy Ashdown. She is now a key part of the Liberal Democrat’s General Election campaign 2015. The role of LibDem peers in the post-election period will be crucial and we believe Olly Grender will play a key role.
21. (+2) Kirsty Williams
Leader, Welsh Liberal Democrats
An effective performer on the media, Kirsty Williams has gained many admirers since she took over the leadership of the Welsh Democrats from Mike German, but it’s hard to see much electoral success for the Welsh LibDems in the short term. We thought she might set her eyes on a Westminster seat, but she’s staying put in the Senedd for the moment.
22. (+5) Lord Newby
Liberal Democrat Chief Whip in the House of Lords
Lord Newby was appointed the party’s Chief Whip in the Lords in 2012 to help bolster the leadership and maintain discipline in the Lords. Previous roles with the Lib Dems include Treasury spokesman, press officer to Paddy Ashdown, and Chief of Staff to Charles Kennedy during his time as leader. He’s done a good job in herding the LibDem cats in the upper House in sometimes trying circumstances.
23. (+5) Duncan Hames
PPS to Nick Clegg and LibDem MP for Chippenham
Last year Duncan Hames succeeded his wife Jo Swinson as Nick Clegg’s PPS and his rise in this year’s list is an indication that if there are any new ministers to be appointed in a mini-reshufle, Hames will be at the front of the queue.
24. (+9) Mark Pack
Commentator & blogger
Mark Pack is a key player in the LibDem blogosphere. Despite leaving the Liberal Democrat Voice blog as Co-Editor, he remains a regular contributor to the site. His daily email bulletin is a must read for senior Lib Dems and politicos alike. Co-author of ‘101 Ways To Win An Election’, he is also considered one of the party’s key thinkers on campaigning tactics and organization. Pack remains one of the few go-to Lib Dem pundit for the mainstream media.
25. (+5) Lord Wallace
Liberal Democrat peer & Advocate General for Scotland
If the Lib Dems had men in grey suits, they would be led by Jim Wallace. It’s no stretch of the imagination to believe that had Jim Wallace not existed, the 2010 coalition talks may have floundered. More recently, Wallace played a key role in the LibDem campaign to persuade Scots to remain in the United Kingdom.
26. (+8) Duncan Brack
Vice Chair of the Lib Dems Manifesto Working Group
Long-serving party apparatchik, environmental policy expert and Liberal historian Duncan Brack was Chris Huhne’s Spad for the first few years of the coalition. Last year he was made Vice Chair of the key election manifesto group for the Liberal Democrats, already defeating the leadership twice over issues of policy. Co-editor of the 'Reinventing the State' book and 'Green Book' – both of which challenge the more economic liberal position of the Orange Book crowd – he was clearly put there to balance manifesto group Chair David Laws. As we said before, though, he's one of the few Lib Dems who everybody seems not only to respect but also to like.
27. (NEW) Baroness Kramer
Following her defeat in Richmond Park at the hands of Conservative Zac Goldsmith in 2010, Susan Kramer subsequently lost out to Tim Farron to become the Party’s President. Following this double defeat Kramer was elevated to the Lords. Since her appointment to the Department of Transport last year her media appearances have become more frequent. Might she run for the London Mayoralty for the second time?
28. (NEW) Stephen Williams
Local Government Minister
Williams became the Lib Dem’s first openly gay MP when he was elected in 2005. Under the Coalition he was the chairman of the Liberal Democrat backbench committee for Treasury matters, before being made Local Government Minister last October. He is widely regarded as one of the Liberal Democrats more effective ministers. His localism brief means he will play an influential role during ongoing discussions about English devolution.
29. (-9) Willie Rennie
Leader, Scottish Liberal Democrats
After the 2011 Scottish elections he became the only new Lib Dem MSP, and was elected unopposed as leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Rennie has made himself popular with the leadership because of his loyalty to the UK Liberal Democrats. None of the three main parties came out of the Scottish referendum particularly well, and despite his efforts Rennie made no real impact on the result.
30. (NEW) Baroness Brinton
Candidate for Lib Dem President
Most people outside the Westminster bubble have probably never heard of Sal Brinton, in fact most people outside the Liberal Democrats have never heard of her. She was a long serving Lib Dem councillor in Cambridgeshire, even standing as a Parliamentary candidate in the area. In 2011 she was rewarded for her service to the party and made a life peer. She now speaks for the Lib Dems on health in the Lords, and is a strong candidate for the next President of the party.
31. (-20) Michael Moore
Member of Parliament for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk
Many were surprised when Moore was promoted to the Cabinet in 2010. However during his time in the Cabinet he proved himself to be a safe pair of hands and avoided any major cock-ups. Sadly for him his rather lacklustre approach lost him his job as Nick Clegg decided he wanted someone bit more combative to help take on Alex Salmond during the independence referendum.
32. (-1) Tim Gordon
Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats
A relative unknown when appointed as the party’s Chief Executive, Gordon was a long-standing local activist who had combined that with a successful career in strategic business management. His quiet, low-key appearance belies a willingness to confront difficult decisions and his time at party HQ has been winning plaudits for careful management of scarce resources. He has also put a strong emphasis on improving internal communications in the party, introducing a popular weekly internal email recapping the party’s main messages.
33. (-1) Stephen Tall
Co-editor, Liberal Democrat Voice
Last year Stephen Tall replaced Mark Pack as the Co-Editor of the hugely successful Liberal Democrat Voice, the must-read site for party activists. A Research Associate at CentreForum, Tall is usually more at home with the politics of David Laws than of Simon Hughes, but rarely picks factional fights, being a critical friend of the party who prefers to talk up its achievements rather than knock them down.
34. (-12) Gerald Vernon-Jackson
Leader of the Liberal Democrats on the Local Government Association
A veteran campaigner and party stalwart, Vernon-Jackson has been a Councillor in Portsmouth since 2003. He was Leader of the Council for a decade until this year when Lib Dems lost seats to UKIP, mainly due to the Mike Hancock scandal. Born and brought up in Hampshire, he trained as a social worker and is a member of the Federal Executive. Established and well connected, his wedding pictures are a "who’s who" of senior Lib Dems. Somehow he seems to have escaped criticism of his handling of the “Mike Hancock problem” and has been selected as the parliamentary candidate to succeed him. Who said politics was a funny business?
35. (+8) Sir Ming Campbell
Former Leader of the Liberal Democrats 2006-07
The elder Statesman of the Lib Dems, Sir Ming Campbell remains the mediator of party disputes. Last year he was made a Companion of Honour in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list. In it he was described as "one of the most respected politicians of his generation". An experienced media performer, he is mostly seen commenting on the foreign policy issues of the day particularly the unravelling situation in the Middle East. He is one of the few Lib Dem politicians that the public really like.
36. (-10) Jeremy Browne
Member of Parliament for Taunton Deane
Browne is treated with suspicion by his own party because he is the most right wing Liberal Democrat MP in the House of Commons. Many openly joke that he is a secret Tory. He was a solid performer at the Foreign Office, before he was moved on to the Home Office. He was humiliated when he was relegated to the back benches in October last year. He wrote a well-received book, 2The Race Plan” earlier this year setting out his personal manifesto for the revival of liberalism. He recently said that at the next Lib Dem leadership contest it was “essential” that there was a free market candidate. Will he throw his hat in the ring?
37. (+3) James McGrory
Press Officer, No 10 Downing Street
Handling most of the Deputy Prime Minister’s press and communications, James McGrory has climbed the greasy pole to become Nick Clegg’s favourite and most trusted spin doctor. Described by some as ‘a cockney thug’, he is not your typical Liberal Democrat. He has achieved power and influence at a very young age. He is responsible for Nick Clegg’s ‘Call Clegg’ phone-in on LBC.
38. (NEW) Jenny Willott
Assistant Government Whip
One of the Lib Dems best female performers, she did a good job covering Jo Swinson at the Department for Business during her maternity leave. Trusted by the leadership, she is one of the enforcers as an Assistant Government Whip. She faces a tough battle in Cardiff Central to hold off the Labour Party, but if she succeeds she may well be rewarded with a top job in a future coalition.
39. (NEW) Caroline Pidgeon
Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the London Assembly
Caroline Pidgeon is hugely popular among London LibDems thanks to her record of local campaigning around the capital. She has repeatedly refused blandishments from all levels of the party to stand for London Mayor, instead preferring to concentrate on work such as being at various times Vice-Chair and Chair of the Assembly’s Transport committee. Previously a local councillor for twelve years in Southwark, she stood for Parliament in 2010.
40. (NEW) Caron Lindsay
Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice
Another entry for the influential Liberal Democrat Voice blog, whose online polls often leave top Lib Dem politicians in a state of fear. Lindsay is strong voice for women in the Lib Dems so may be disappointed if, as looks increasingly likely, that the Lib Dems return no female MPs at the next election. She is currently Treasurer of the Scottish Party and also a member of the Federal Executive.
41. (NEW) Tom Brake
Deputy Leader of the House of Commons
Never highlighted as one of the most exciting members of his party, Tom Brake, the MP for Carshalton and Wallington was a reliable spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats’ Home Affairs team for the first two years of the Coalition. His patience and loyalty to the party whip were rewarded when he was promoted in the reshuffle to Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, a role which has provided him with influence over the Parliamentary timetable.
42. (-3) Matthew Hanney
Political Adviser to Nick Clegg
Hanney has worked for Nick Clegg for over eight years and is well respected throughout the party. His role as Senior Political Adviser puts him in contact with the grassroots of the party, day in day out, and ensures that Nick Clegg keeps in touch with the party at all levels. Hanney is the Marmite member of Cleggs’ team: you either love him or hate him.
43. (NEW) Miranda Green
Green is one of the most recognised Lib Dem faces thanks to her regular appearances on TV, particularly alongside Michael Portillo on This Week. Aside from Mark Pack, she may be the only other independent Lib Dem commentator. A former Press Secretary to Paddy Ashdown, she now writes for the majority of national newspapers on all things Lib Dem. Depending on next May’s results she might have to start looking for alternative means of income.
44. (-15) Baroness Williams
Former Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords
Although she no longer holds an official position, Shirley Williams is seen as the Grandmother of the Liberal Democrats, as well as a national treasure. She was an outspoken critic of the coalition’s health reforms in 2011. She annoyed many Lib Dems with her stance on equal marriage, but after Nick Clegg and Charles Kennedy she is probably their most recognised face on TV. Her decline this year is in part due to her defence of Lord Rennard, which caused much irritation among party activists. Sadly as she gets older we are seeing less and less of her.
45. (+5) Maajid Nawaz
Parliamentary Candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn
Maajid Nawaz is a British Pakistani and former radical Islamist. He was imprisoned in Egypt for four years for being a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was banned in the country. Having renounced radicalism in 2007, the year after he was released from prison, Nawaz co-founded Quilliam, the world's first counter-extremism think tank. As the Lib Dem candidate for three-way marginal Hampstead & Kilburn, he is the party's latest visible minority candidate for a seat which they are in with a shout to win. He is regularly on our screens talking about Islamic extremism and the situation in the Middle East.
46. (-) Baron Verjee
Businessman and Lib Dem Donor
One of the Lib Dems most recent peers, Rumi Verjee is a Ugandan Asian entrepreneur and philanthropist. He brought Domino's to the UK and businesses he created now employ more than 20,000 people in the UK. A former barrister, Verjee also established The Rumi Foundation in 2006, which supports a range of humanitarian initiatives, including working with The Clinton Foundation to provide new schools for 3,000 children in Uganda. An active Liberal Democrat for several years, Verjee has sponsored the party’s Leadership Programme which aims to increase the number of candidates from under-represented groups.
47. (+2) Helen Duffett
Internal Communications Manager, Lib Dem HQ
Helen Duffett acts as a bridge between the party establishment and the membership. She is credited with a huge improvement in the effectiveness and relevance of party communications. As Honorary President of Liberal Youth, Associate Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and host of regular online Q&A sessions with Lib Dem Ministers, she is, unlike most messengers, widely liked – which assists her greatly in the role.
48. (-) Miriam Gonzalez-Durantez
Wife of the Deputy Prime Minister
Miriam Gonzalez-Durantez is no ordinary politician’s wife. For a start she turned her nose up at the usual campaigning in the election and got on with her highflying corporate lawyer day job, describing the media interest as “patronising”. As a former EU official and the daughter of a Spanish Senator, her knowledge of the world of politics rivals her husband’s. She is renowned for knowing her own mind, with a thick skin in contrast to her stylish looks. Clegg definitely seeks her advice and pillow talk in this household is likely to be highly political.
49. (NEW) Keith House
Leader of the Eastleigh Borough Council
When the Liberal Democrats managed to hold on to Eastleigh in last year’s by-elections, House was in large part to thank for that. Even during this year’s council elections the Lib Dems managed to hold off UKIP in his patch, despite them putting up a candidate who shared the same name. He is also the Lib Dem leader on Hampshire County Council and the Lib Dem lead at the Local Government Association on Housing, Planning, Waste and Energy issues.
50. (NEW) Gareth Epps
Co-Chair of the Social Liberal Forum
The Social Liberal Forum was launched in 2009 as an internal pressure group within the Lib Dems advocating a centre left approach. They are seen as a welcome antidote by many to the Orange bookers. It is Epps who co-chairs this with Naomi Smith. Aside from the Social Liberal Forum, Epps is also a councillor and member of the Federal Policy Committee.
Interesting things are happening, however, further down the list. Down (though not out) go ex-ministers Michael Moore (unfairly sacked as Scottish Secretary, many feel) and Jeremy Browne. Down too is strategy director Ryan Coetzee (responsible for the unsuccessful ‘party of in’ slogan for the Euro elections), Shirley Williams (edging towards retirement) and Vince Cable, now out of the top ten for the first time given his lacklustre ministerial record and likely eclipse as election economics spokesman by Danny Alexander.
Notable climbers are the Lib Dems’ two women ministers in the Commons, Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson, both of whom have had a good year and enter the top ten for the first time; Jenny Willott, the competent Cardiff Central MP who covered Swinson’s maternity leave, is a new entrant. Also rising are Norman Lamb, the quietly effective health minister (and potential leadership candidate post-Clegg?) and Baroness Olly Grender, Ashdown’s sidekick. Baroness Sal Brinton, general party fixer and candidate for the presidency (succeeding Tim Farron) makes a new entry.
Other new ministers from the reshuffle of October 2013 include Susan Kramer at Transport and Stephen Williams at Communities and Local Government. Steve Webb, the cerebral and effective pensions minister, remains highly placed, and the popular Don Foster, promoted to Chief Whip last year, climbs twenty places, more than anyone else.
The non-parliamentarians remain dominated by Clegg staffers (five of them) and party staff (two), but another council leader enters the list for the first time. Keith House, leader of Eastleigh Council, one of the few areas where Lib Dems still do well, joins Gerald Vernon-Jackson as the voice of the party’s councillors – their numbers may be shrinking but they are still hugely important in this most localist of parties. Communicators make a strong showing, with Caron Lindsay of the Lib Dem Voice blog joining Stephen Tall and Mark Pack. Miranda Green, once press secretary to Paddy Ashdown, makes a new entry as one of the few sympathetic journalists.
Being Lib Dems, the awkward squad are still around. Cambridge MP Julian Huppert continues his steady rise thanks to his sterling defence of civil liberties. Climbing too is social-liberal thinker Duncan Brack, vice chair of the election manifesto group; and Gareth Epps, co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum, makes a new appearance.
Absent from the list this year are a collection of ex-ministers, ex-staffers and (in the case of Matthew Oakeshott) ex-party members. Lena Pietsch, Clegg’s press officer, is absent on maternity leave: given the state of the party, this may be a smart new strategy to grow its membership.