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The Guardian view on Sir Vince Cable as Lib Dem leader: a voice for the centre

Not only does Sir Vince Cable have the experience to lead the Liberal Democrats, he has actually done the job before. He held the reins temporarily before Nick Clegg was chosen in 2007. Since then, Sir Vince has published a well-received book on the causes of the financial crisis and served as a cabinet minister.

An opposition party suffering depleted influence might consider itself lucky to have a figure with those credentials ready to step into a leadership breach. Indeed, Sir Vince’s appointment is about as good an outcome as the Lib Dems could hope for, when optimism about their prospects is not abundant and, with only 12 MPs, the pool of contenders was small. It shrank to one as potential rivals ruled themselves out. Of those, Jo Swinson, the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, is the figure who might have offered the most dynamic alternative. The consolation is that she has a long career ahead. So the role is still notionally available to her one day.

The risk of an uncontested succession is insufficient debate about policy direction and the absence of a proper autopsy on a general election campaign that failed to come to life. There are some simple interpretations: Tim Farron’s contortions over scripture and gay sex spoiled the campaign launch; Labour hoovered up anti-Tory votes in a polarised contest; support for a second Brexit referendum never came near reflating support for a small party still grievously wounded by the reputational harm of coalition.

Those are symptoms of a deeper malaise: shades of liberalism – economic, social and political – have been at the heart of British government for generations, yet the party that claims that doctrine as its defining purpose, worn in its very name, has failed to assert proprietorial rights. And when it did reach power, the policy dividends were few.

So damaging was that experience for the Lib Dem brand, it is not obvious that recovery can be delivered by a veteran of the coalition era. It is also a feature of the volatile political mood that familiarity from ministerial office is not necessarily an advantage in an opposition figure. Sir Vince cannot present himself as a maverick outsider when that image is very much in vogue. But it is the upsurge in radicalism of left and right that offers the Lib Dems their avenue to relevance.

It is too early to know whether the polarisation of voting (in England, specifically) around Labour and Tory banners signals a return to the old duopoly. The prior trend had been fragmentation. Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May each scored high vote shares composed of complex coalitions. Socially liberal, pro-European Tories and economically liberal, market-friendly Labour voters can feel poorly served by their leaders. The zone once identified as Britain’s “centre ground” is organisationally hollow and bereft of leadership, but it is not a population vacuum.

The principle of navigation between dogmas of left and right is a concept that needs advocacy, especially in periods where political culture is aggressively adversarial and compromise with a rival is too often denigrated as moral surrender to an enemy. Whether Sir Vince has the strategy or capacity to change perceptions of his party and carve out a role as a voice of cool reason in a febrile climate is uncertain. But that is the opportunity that is his to grasp.

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