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Runners and riders: Who could replace Willie Rennie as Scottish Lib Dem leader?

Possible candidates for next Scottish Lib Dem leader.
Possible candidates for next Scottish Lib Dem leader.

Willie Rennie has stepped down as leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats and that means the party will need to search for a new chief for the first time since he took up the role in 2011.

Mr Rennie was the only nominee for leader following the resignation of Tavish Scott in the wake of a poor showing at that year’s Scottish Parliament elections where the newly elected Mid Scotland and Fife MSP was the only new Lib Dem member.

Mr Scott’s resignation was triggered by the party dropping from 16 seats in the Scottish Parliament to five, and while there have been changes to the party since, Mr Rennie, now the MSP for North East Fife, has struggled to improve the situation.

In 2016, the party again elected five MSPs, while gaining two constituency seats and holding their existing two with increased majorities.

This year’s election saw the party lose yet another MSP, despite Mr Rennie predicting he would win “a whole new host” of seats.

The next leader will face a tough task to turnaround the party’s fortunes but some interesting figures may look to put themselves forward for the challenge.

Easy bets

Alex Cole-Hamilton – The smart money would be on the Edinburgh Western MSP putting himself forward for the gig.

An MSP since 2016, he has served as the Lib Dems’ health spokesman at Holyrood and become one of the best known figures for the party in Scotland, even being ranked 27 out of 50 on a list of Top 50 Lib Dems of 2020.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie (right) and party General Election campaign chairman Alex Cole-Hamilton in Edinburgh.

He received 25,578 votes in May’s Scottish Parliament election, the highest number of votes ever cast for a single candidate in a Holyrood election, so could he bring some of that electoral success to the party?

Mr Cole-Hamilton has been involved in controversies in the past, including being forced to apologise in February after being seen swearing at children’s minister Maree Todd during an online committee hearing.

However, if he fancies it, he would likely be considered the frontrunner for the job.

Wendy Chamberlain – A North East Fife representative like Willie Rennie, the thing most likely to hold Ms Chamberlain back is the fact that she works at Westminster rather than at Holyrood.

As the party’s chief whip and spokeswoman for Scotland and Wales, she has built up a strong reputation since becoming an MP in 2019.

Wendy Chamberlain.

She was also appointed the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ constitutional relations spokeswoman by Mr Rennie in 2019 so would be no stranger to the constitutional battles being played out at Holyrood.

Her stock has grown during the pandemic after writing a letter calling for the resignation of then-chief medical officer Catherine Calderwood, following a reported breach of Covid rules, and leading calls to set up a Covid-19 select committee.

Would she be able to lead the party in Scotland from Westminster? Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross has already proved it is possible.

Outsiders

Alistair Carmichael – As MP for Orkney and Shetland since 2001, a former Scottish secretary during the coalition government and current home affairs spokesman for the Lib Dems at Westminster, Mr Carmichael is one of the most experienced options.

A former deputy party leader at Westminster, he also took temporary charge of the Lib Dems in the House of Commons following the resignation of Nick Clegg as party leader.

He too would face the issue of leading the party from Westminster but there would likely be bigger stumbling blocks in the way.

Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney and Shetland.

In 2015, a court threw out an attempt to unseat him as an MP even though it found he had told a “blatant lie” about the leak of a memo about SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.

At the time of the leak, Mr Carmichael denied all knowledge but later, following a Cabinet Office inquiry, accepted the contents of the memo were incorrect, that he had lied and had authorised its leaking to the media.

Judges ruled Mr Carmichael lied about the leak but said it could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt that his dishonesty was designed to mislead voters in the Orkney and Shetland constituency about his personal conduct.

Beatrice Wishart – Elected as MSP for Shetland in 2019 after the incumbent, Tavish Scott, stepped down, Ms Wishart’s relatively short-time in national politics could hold back her chances of taking the top job.

Beatrice Wishart, MSP for Shetland

She currently serves as education spokeswoman for the Lib Dems at Holyrood and previously ran the offices of both Mr Carmichael and Mr Scott.

Ms Wishart also previously worked on the Shetland Islands Council’s education and families committee and would likely seek to continue the party’s championing of education and teachers, as seen under Mr Rennie.

Liam McArthur – A long-serving member at Holyrood, he was first elected as MSP for Orkney in 2007 and was, until earlier this year, the party’s spokesman for education and energy and tourism.

Liam McArthur MSP

Mr McArthur may have been considered a more likely option were it not for the fact he took up the role of deputy presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament after being re-elected in May.

Wildcard

Jo Swinson – It couldn’t happen, could it?

Ms Swinson served as leader of the UK party in the run-up to the 2019 General Election and was the first woman and youngest person to have the role, as well as holding it for the shortest period of time.

She was MP for East Dunbartonshire from 2005 to 2015 and 2017 to 2019, and suggested she could lead a Liberal Democrat majority government which would revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit.

Nick Clegg (middle) with Willie Rennie and Jo Swinson MP.

In reality, it was a disastrous campaign which saw her lose the party seats, including her own to the SNP- meaning she was disqualified from continuing as leader.

In September 2020, Ms Swinson became director of Partners for a New Economy (P4NE), a “group of donors who want economics to benefit people and nature”.

A return to politics with the Scottish Lib Dems seems highly unlikely but given the political events of recent years, it would be brave to rule anything out.

EXCLUSIVE: Willie Rennie stepping down as Scottish Lib Dem leader

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