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The Lib Dem leadership race has started

By Tim Montgomerie
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Cable & Red Box II

In last Monday's Times (£) I wondered if electorates would start to turn to politicians with a little more grey hair (or a little less hair generally) in these tricky times:

"Americans, like voters in other parts of the world, are wondering if today’s politicians are somehow smaller than those of a generation ago. They are certainly younger. Obama was 22 years younger than Reagan when each first became president. Margaret Thatcher was ten years older than David Cameron when both began their premierships. Both of today’s transatlantic leaders have 20 years’ less life experience than China’s President. Previous leaders used those 10-20 extra years to run a business, command men in uniform or raise a family. I don’t think we look back at previous leaders through rose-tinted spectacles. We see them as better performers because they were better prepared. In benign times politicians could get away with simply looking and sounding the part. Today, when the challenges are so great, we are ruled by leaders who have spent their whole shortish lives doing little else other than preparing press releases, speeches and attack strategies."

Vince Cable seems to have taken this to heart. He didn't stand for the Lib Dem leadership when Ming Campbell stood down because he thought he was too old. No longer. He told the FT that “the worship of youth has diminished — perhaps generally — in recent years” and voters have a renewed respect for “people who have had some insight into what is going on”. Some polling today suggests that he might be correct. Asked by YouGov who should replace George Osborne as Chancellor if he was reshuffled and the Lib Dem Business Secretary is voters' top choice. 22% choose Mr Cable versus 16% choosing William Hague and 9% Clarke. The numbers don't just suggest that Mr Cable has overcome the age issue they suggest he's quite popular too.

This is a significant moment for both Clegg and Cameron.

Clegg up until now hasn't faced an obvious internal rival. He does now. At some point in the remainder of the parliament the Lib Dems are going to ask themselves...

(1) if they are more likely to recover with Clegg or Cable as their leader;

(2) whether Cable or Clegg are most likely to connect with the left-wing voters the party has lost since the Coalition's formation; and

(3) do they want Clegg or Cable representing the party in the next election debates?

For me it's a question of when not if that they'll conclude that Cable is the answer to all three of those questions.

For Cameron it means that a Tory majority has to be his aim at the next election. The chances of Cable choosing Cameron over Miliband as coalition partner are very small in the event of a hung parliament where Lib/Lab or Lib/Con pacts are both possible.

Tory members may put Mr Cable at the bottom of the Cabinet league table but enough of the general public have a different view. Cable's re-emergence really is a significant political moment.