Where’s Sir Vince Cable gone? The leader of Britain’s third party is noticeably absent from the broadsheets, airwaves or Twittersphere. Since doing one national interview a month or so ago Sir Vince has all but disappeared, hardly even bothering to appear in Parliament these days due to his natural disdain for the “Punch and Judy show” of PMQs.
His absence, and that of his Lib Dem party, is particularly bizarre at a time when there are so many people disaffected with the two mainstream parties, with many crying out for a new so-called centrist party. Indeed, there are plans afoot to set up such a new party.
Yet once the great yellow hope of sensible moderates, polls put the Liberal Democrats on only 7%, even less than the vote gained at last year’s disappointing General Election performance. This comes despite a yawning chasm in the centre-ground of British politics, a record high of 100,000 party members and the party’s clear-cut stance on Brexit: the only party where the politicians all seem to agree.
So why isn’t Vince seeking more attention ? Or is it because the media cannot be bothered to cover the Lib Dems anymore ?
Some of the reasons for the party’s lack of media coverage are straightforward. The first is simply that Vince and his party aren’t doing an awful lot and seem to be clinging to Brexit like a rock in a stormy sea while they struggle to define their broader post-Farron identity. It also doesn’t help that the Lib Dems have just enough MPs for a five-a-side kick about which makes monopolising airtime a difficult feat. And banning the press from attending their party conference in Wales last year wasn’t the move of a party hankering for the limelight.
But an insidious trend in the battle for the public’s attention provides an alternative explanation. The line dividing celebrity culture and politics is becoming increasingly blurred. The slew of politicians appearing on reality TV is testament to this convergence as well as to the lure of high viewing figures. Stanley Johnson, Edwina Currie, Nadine Dories, Kezia Dugdale and Lembit Opik have all served time in the I’m A Celebrity jungle. The International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt flung herself off a diving board on Splash! in 2014. Ann Widdecombe was recently crowned runner-up on Celebrity Big Brother.
For those of us fond of watching politicians humiliating themselves and being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, this is no bad thing. But the side-effect of the slow motion collision between the two spheres is a warping of the criteria by which people judge politicians. The expectation for entertainment has spilled over into politics. The swing of the pendulum away from the identikit leaders of the Blair/Cameron/Clegg variety has also helped in ushering in a new era where the whacky and irreverent flourish. As in The Jungle or the Big Brother House, disproportionate coverage is given to those who entertain by being eccentric and shocking in their manner, appearance and views because this is what commands viewers’ attention.
This trend has made outrageous ‘authenticity’ the flavour of the week. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s rise from backbench obscurity to grass-roots figurehead and anachronistic meme is the most striking example. He is tailor-made for reality TV. His Edwardian elocution coupled with a Victorian attitude to abortion makes him thigh-slappingly entertaining. Sir Vince by contrast, while not entirely naive to the world of celebrity glitz, having been a stiff but lovable contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, struggles to command attention in the same way. Unlike Comrade Corbyn or the Maybot, Vince doesn’t have an obvious nickname or epithet and doesn’t lend himself to caricature like Boris Johnson or everyone’s old favourite, Nigel Farage. He is moderate, avuncular and therefore considered boring. As such it’s hard for him to gain traction in a media environment which caters to a public that increasingly expects to be shocked and entertained as well as informed. Policy has given way to personality and sensible centrism is a hard sell.
This is not to say that Cable should become a scientologist or start rapping on Good Morning Britain. But it suggests that because attention is the currency of politics more so than ever, the playing field of political publicity doesn’t work in the Lib Dem leader’s favour. The raucous din of personality politics has made it difficult for the Lib Dems to make themselves heard. Sir Vince has until 2022 at the latest to convince the public that he and his party are worth keeping in the Big Ben House.