The Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable is to stand down after local elections in May, leaving the pro-EU party seeking its fourth leader in as many years.
Sir Vince, the 75-year-old former business secretary, took over the Lib Dems following the 2017 general election. He had won back the seat of Twickenham in west London that he had lost two years earlier.
He told the Daily Mail on Thursday that he wanted to “get back to writing books again” and improve his ballroom dancing, although he plans to continue as an MP.
Under his leadership, the Lib Dems have edged up in the polls, from about 7 per cent to 10 per cent. Sir Vince has maintained the party’s support of a second EU referendum, and sought to establish it as an economically-credible, pro-social justice party.
However, the Lib Dems have just 11 MPs and now also have to contend with a rival centrist force, the Independent Group, formed by former Labour and Conservative Europhile MPs.
The Independent Group, which is not yet a political party, has said that it has no intention of joining the Lib Dems. Sir Vince has suggested that the two groups could work towards an electoral pact.
The announcement of his departure, which comes ahead of the Lib Dem spring conference in York, is unlikely to surprise party activists. Sir Vince had indicated last year that he would step down once a series of reforms to open up the party to new recruits were implemented.
He had said at the time that it would be logical for him to stay on to see Brexit resolved. But he told the Mail that Brexit “now looks as if it will be a protracted process, and may never happen”.
On Thursday, MPs voted to delay the UK’s departure from the EU, currently scheduled for March 29, by at least three months. Any delay depends on the agreement of all EU countries.
Sir Vince’s successor will be elected by the Lib Dems’ membership of about 100,000, in a process lasting around three months. Possible candidates include the current deputy leader Jo Swinson; the former environment secretary Ed Davey; the Oxford West MP Layla Moran; and the Edinburgh West MP Christine Jardine.
“I set considerable store by having an orderly, business-like, succession unlike the power struggles in the other parties,” Sir Vince said.