One of the many mysteries of British politics is why on earth the LibDems are still languishing at under 10% on the polls, given they are the only political party in the UK to have a united and understandable position on Brexit.
They have 48% of the electorate to woo, but the electorate hasn't been willing to entertain their blandishments. It's easy to blame the rather lacklustre leadership of Vince Cable for this, but perhaps that's too simplistic. I think it goes deeper than that.
Just as Iraq has been toxic for the Blairite part of the Labour Party, the Coalition has played the same role for the LibDems. A large section of the electorate, which in previous times, had voted for the LibDems, cannot forgive them for propping up what they saw as a purely Tory government. In many ways this is unfair. During the 2010-2015 coalition government, the LibDems managed to push through about 75% of their 2010 manifesto promises. Trouble was, that the Tories were very successful in taking the credit for the more popular ones, in a unique form of political gazumping.
Even though Vince Cable was seen as a politician who was very sceptical about the Coalition, he remained as Business Secretary throughout it. Most had tipped him to be the first to resign, but he stuck it out. He drove Nick Clegg to distraction from time to time, but his reputation as an economic sage and pseudo national treasure gave him a certain amount of cover, not only in his own party but among the electorate as a whole.
Vince Cable won the leadership by acclamation following the 2017 general election campaign, in which Tim Farron didn't exactly cover himself in glory. Yes, the LibDems increased their seats from 8 to 12, and their vote share went down from 7.9% to 7.4%. Hardly a triumph. Farron's inability to shake off embarrassing questions (or rather answers) about his views on homosexuality led him to conclude that he couldn't stay on afterwards.
Jo Swinson agonised about whether to stand against Vince Cable. Had she done so, she may well have won, but for her the time wasn't right. She will undoubtedly be tipped as a leading candidate to replace Vince Cable but she may conclude that as the mother of two sons aged 5 and 9 months, now is not the time. That would be a pity, even if it is entirely understandable. Her detractors would no doubt point out that she has written a book called EQUAL POWER & HOW TO ACHIEVE IT and as a woman, to fail to stand in this leadership election might be viewed as letting the side down. Swinson is married to former LibDem MP Duncan Hames and they will both have a big decision to make.
A LibDem councillor acquaintance of mine tells me that Swinson won't win because of her coalition record. This is astonishing given she achieved a lot during her time in government, but as I said above, even being associated with the Coalition is toxic in many parts of th LibDem voluntary party. "She's just Nick Clegg in a dress," is an oft repeated comment, I am told. Apart from the misogynistic nature of such a comment, it is also very far from the truth. She is a very different sort of LibDem to Clegg.
Sir Ed Davey is another likely candidate who will suffer from the anti-Coalition syndrome, possibly even more so than Jo Swinson. He also suffers from the huge disadvantage from possessing two testicles and a Knighthood. There's a real feeling in senior LibDem circles - it's similar in the Labour Party - that this time, it has to a woman. It's an embarrassment that in the woman leader stakes, it remains 2-0 to the Tory girls.
Ed Davey is certainly to the left of Jo Swinson, and possibly Layla Moran. He is seen in some quarters as rivalling Paddy Ashdown in the 'holier than thou' stakes, but can point to a track record of LibDem achievement during his three years as Energy & Climate Change Secretary. His big challenge will be to explain how his potential leadership of the LibDems would be very much different to that of Vince Cable. While not being as charismatically challenged as one or two of his colleagues, it's difficult to imagine Ed Davey whipping a conference audience into a frenzy, or enthusing party activists and recruiting new members to the party.
In party terms, Ed Davey is the best known of the likely candidates. He would also be the safest choice. If the LibDems are looking for a safe pair of hands, they could do worse than elect Ed Davey, but is that really what they need at the moment? Surely they need a bit of a firebrand. Someone who can combine the rhetorical skills of Jo Grimond and Jeremy Thorpe with the party management skills of Paddy Ashdown, and the connection which Charles Kennedy made with the electorate.
Step forward Layla Moran. At least, that's what many LibDem activisits seem to be thinking. Moran was only elected to Parliament in 2017, but she's made quite an impact on her party. Bright, breezy, approachable and funny, she may offer just the kind of kick up the backside that the LibDems need. She would not only be the first female leader of the LibDems, but also the first with an ethnic minority heritage (her mother is Palestinian).
Layla Moran's obvious weakness as a leadership candidate is her lack of experience. She often comes across as politically naive but that can be turned to her advantage. Chuka Umunna often adopts the mantra of slagging off 'the old politics' and the 'old way of doing things'. But he suffers from being seen by many as part of the old politics. Layla Moran can come in as a breath of fresh air and make a positive out of her 'newness'. David Cameron had only been in Parliament for four years before he became leader. Paddy Ashdown had been in Parliament for only a year before he took over from David Steel as LibDem leader, and he didn't do a bad job in the end, did he?
I interviewed Layla Moran for an hour a few weeks ago and I discovered a politician at ease with herself, with a very well developed sense of humour, and someone with a lot of self knowledge. The reaction on social media to this interview was quite something.
In my view, if Layla Moran decides to stand, if she plays the campaign well, she is the candidate most likely to win.
But does it matter? Does it really matter who leads the Liberal Democrats? Do they even matter any longer? Yes, they do. British politics needs a strong centrist, liberal party, which can offer a radical alternative to the two traditional parties. This ought to be the LibDems, but at the moment they seem almost irrelevant to the debate. Broadcasters seem more keen to invite members of The Independent Group on to their screens or behind the microphone than LibDems. That may change over time, but it is certainly the first main task of any new LibDem leader to change that particular narrative.