Willie Rennie: Scottish LibDem Leader
It would be churlish of me to let the day pass without offering my congratulations to Willie Rennie, the first of the new party leaders to find himself in situ having acceded to the LibDem Leadership today. Generally, contests are seen as positive and leaders who just walk into the role tend to be regretted, sometimes almost resented, by the party, but I think this was probably the best move for the LibDems as a contest when the pool of contenders was just four would have looked quite ludicrous.
Still, it may be a little galling for the remaining MSPs (discounting Tavish Scott, of course): Jim Hume, Liam McArthur and Alison McInnes, who are all only embarking on their second term in the Parliament but have served for four years more than their new Leader. Nevertheless, he was the best choice for now. As the hero of the Dunfermline & West Fife By-Election, he occupies a place in the Scottish LibDem firmament broadly equivalent to the status enjoyed by Winnie Ewing in the SNP. Given the almost mindbending severity of the punishment meted out to his party a fortnight ago, he will be uniquely placed to rally the remaining faithful and get them to dust themselves off and get ready again. The first election he’ll see as Leader will be the Inverclyde By-Election (yet to be called) to replace the late David Cairns. The LibDems came third here with just 13.3% of the vote so judging by recent performances it’ll be a morale booster if the LibDems either hold onto third or retain their deposit, and it’ll be a total miracle if they can do both. The first real, nationwide test will come in next year’s local elections where the LibDems are defending 166 Councillors, 12.7% of the vote and Leadership of Edinburgh and Aberdeen Councils. If the party can hold on to half that vote, and 50-60 Councillors, then he’ll have passed the first test: not making an advance, not stopping the rot, but at least slowing the decline.
That said, not all the omens are good for Willie Rennie: at a time when LibDem participation in the Coalition is not popular in Scotland, the last person people may want to hear from is a former Special Adviser to the Coalition’s Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Moore. And Labour’s experiences of promoting former Special Advisers to the Secretary of State for Scotland, Wendy Alexander (who worked for Donald Dewar) and Iain Gray (who worked for Alistair Darling) did not end in success. Rennie’s pedigree may work against him, as may this comment:
I will be working with my colleagues in the Scottish Parliament to stand up to the SNP bulldozer.
Now, obviously, everyone’s working out how to deal with the return of majority government, but firstly, it’s a little rich to hear objections from the party that formed a majority Coalition bulldozer with Labour at Holyrood from 1999 to 2007, and now is in a majority Coalition bulldozer with the Tories at Westminster. And secondly, the naked hostility shown to the SNP by the LibDem Leadership over the past few years has done the party no favours whatsoever. Perhaps, just perhaps, the LibDems ought to take a more conciliatory line. After all, even if the LibDems had played nicely for the last four years, there’s no guarantee that they’d have secured much beyond the occasional Budget concession – the flagship policy of Local Income Tax would only have enjoyed the support of 63, maybe 64 MSPs even if the SNP and LibDems could have worked out the details – while playing hardball could yield results if the LibDems could get the other parties on board.
This time, sitting there throwing a wobbly at everything done or said by the SNP will get them nowhere: they’re still the third largest opposition group and with a much reduced contingent (if Willie Rennie gets a weekly FMQs spot he’ll be getting treated better than the Green or SSP Leaders did in the 2003-07 Parliament when they each had more MSPs than he does now) and so a far smaller platform. If they actually try talking with the SNP rather than shouting at them, or taking the huff at any idea simply because it was had by Alex Salmond. Think about that – a group of just five MSPs actually getting concessions from a majority government!
It could happen, and it could be the LibDems’ easiest ticket to restored credibility… if Willie Rennie has the balls to try it.
Sadly, his little announcement today suggests that he might not. We shall see.