Vince Cable emerges as Lib Dems' favourite – and candidate to succeed Nick Clegg

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After a period in the doldrums, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, has bounced back to emerge as the Liberal Democrat politician most highly rated by the party's members.

The survey of 550 grassroots activists by the Liberal Democrat Voice website suggests that Mr Cable would be a strong candidate to succeed Nick Clegg if he stands down as the party's leader before the next general election.

It confirms a remarkable comeback by Mr Cable. Liberal Democrat insiders believed that his prospects of leading the party were over last December after he told undercover journalists posing as constituents he had "declared war" on the media magnate Rupert Murdoch over News Corp's bid to raise its stake in BSkyB from 39 to 100 per cent.

The takeover was abandoned this summer in the midst of the phone-hacking scandal at Mr Murdoch's News of the World. Friends believe Mr Cable, who is 68, still has an appetite for the party's top job. Mr Clegg has insisted he will lead it into the next election but there is speculation he may quit in 2014 to become Britain's European Commissioner.

In April, Mr Cable had a net satisfaction rating of 51 per cent among party members, according to Liberal Democrat Voice. That has now jumped to 72 per cent and he has overtaken his two most likely rivals for the leadership.

Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, has seen his net satisfaction rating drop from 63 to 53 per cent in the past six months. He has been the subject of a police investigation over allegations, which he strongly denies, that he asked his former wife to take points on her driving licence for a speeding offence he committed.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat president, could emerge as Mr Cable's main rival. He has a net satisfaction rating of 70 per cent and is seen by many party insiders as Mr Clegg's most likely successor. While he lacks ministerial experience, being outside the Government could prove an advantage if the Coalition continues to damage the Liberal Democrats' performance in elections.

Mr Clegg's own standing among his party's grassroots has improved sharply since he adopted a more "muscular" approach inside the Coalition after the Liberal Democrats suffered heavy defeats in the council elections and referendum on the voting system in May. His net satisfaction rating has jumped from 18 to 40 per cent.

The Liberal Democrat ministers who are highly rated by Conservative activists score badly among their own party members. Danny Alexander, the chief Treasury Secretary, is the Cabinet's sixth-best performer and seen as doing a better job than 18 Tory ministers, according to a survey for The Independent by the Conservativehome website. His 52 per cent net satisfaction rating among Tory members contrasts with a 24 per cent score among Liberal Democrat activists. Similarly, Mr Cable and Mr Huhne are at the bottom the Tory activists' performance table while they come first and fourth respectively among Liberal Democrat members.

The survey of Liberal Democrat members found that they regard the economy as a more important priority than the environment. When asked to rank different issues in importance on a scale of one to 10, delivering jobs and prosperity, cutting taxes for the least well off and reducing the deficit come above fighting climate change, improving public transport and controlling inflation. The NHS and schools are seen as less of a priority.

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