ANALYSIS: The Lib Dems are on a high, but tensions over its Brexit policy remain

Posted On: 
17th September 2019

As the Liberal Democrats leave sunny Bournemouth, they head off with a host of new recruits and a radical position on Brexit.

Lib Dem figures are immortalised on badges at the conference shop.
Credit: 
PA

Over the course of their party conference, Lib Dem members voted over a range of issues from saving music venues to housing reform and fighting crime.

But the position that has got people talking is the party’s decision to take an uncompromising anti-Brexit stance. If they win the next election, they will revoke Article 50 - cancelling the result of the 2016 referendum without bothering to have another one.

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The new, hardline, stance does not enjoy the unanimous support of the party faithful.

“Personally, yes absolutely 1000% I would support it any day of the week. But I’m not just making policy for me and the party shouldn’t be just making policy for the party faithful who will of course subscribe to this view,” campaigner Kirsty Allan said.

“It took people a long time to come around to our current viewpoint and I don’t want to alienate them at this point.

“To my mind if we complain that First Past the Post doesn’t give the Conservatives a mandate to do whatever they like, then First Past the Post doesn’t give us a mandate to do whatever we like. Just because it happens to appeal to us doesn’t make it right.”

But Tom Southern, from Newham, who voted in favour of the policy, argued the Lib Dems needed to distinguish itself from Labour, particularly if the rival party backs a second referendum.

He said: “We’re in such a polarised place, the purity of message is always helpful.

“For us it’s problematic and disingenuous of them [Labour] but regardless, people might see that and think ‘fine they’ll get in so we’ll vote for them’, so having a distinct position from them I think is useful.”

As Lib Dem delegates wander through the exhibition hall and listen in to fringe events, a small group of Brexit supporters gather outside on the last day of conference to send Jo Swinson a message: “There are people that do want to Leave”.

The party’s deputy leader Ed Davey, addressed conference promising Leave communities would be at the heart of his budget if the Lib Dems were in Government, to tackle the underlying causes of Brexit. But will that be enough to get them on side?

The Lib Dems' London mayoral candidate, Siobhan Benita, told PoliticsHome: “I think people have lost so much trust in politicians, it will take generations for people to believe that again but actually as a politician you have to do what’s right, not what’s the latest marketing slogan.

“I hope over time that people will realise the best thing for everybody, economically, socially, for the unity of the country is to stay in the European Union.

“But we have a massive task ahead to bring the country back together and that’s going to be the legacy of Brexit whether we leave or not.”

‘BREATH OF FRESH AIR’

Undoubtedly, there is an air of optimism surrounding the Lib Dems at the moment, reflected in the increased number of delegates and MPs at conference.

Former Conservative minister Sam Gyimah was announced as the party’s newest MP on day one of the event, increasing the party's representation in the Commons to 18. 

Former Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell said: "The atmosphere is enormously positive, the new members of parliament who joined us and the new people from other parties who joined us, it’s as if we’ve all been together for quite a long time.

“It’s very interesting coming from both the Labour side and the Conservative side [MPs], but they seem equally happy.

“These are people whose views are so close to mine that there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t all be together in the same party.”

Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston - who defected from the Conservatives via Change UK - said her first Lib Dem conference was a “breath of fresh air” compared to previous Tory conferences she had attended.

“Having been to Conservative party conferences where the members are almost viewed as an irritation and they don’t really get any active say, the contrast is huge,” she said.

“There’s no doubt it is a very difficult decision leaving a party but particularly for those who have been in it for decades, but I think that they do need to ask themselves the question, if you’re staying and we have no deal, you are responsible for that.

“And I know very many of them really, really worried about that.”

But another former Tory who has jumped ship to the Lib Dems - Phillip Lee - has caused a stir among members of the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats.

Dr Lee previously abstained in a Commons vote on same-sex marriage and tabled an amendment to the Immigration Bill in 2014 calling for immigrants to be tested for HIV before they are granted permission to stay in the UK.

At conference the former Tory MP met with the LGBT+ group to discuss their concerns.

Dave Page, acting chair of the group, told this site: “We want to work in good faith with Phillip and the parliamentary party…that’s the starting point to things getting better.

“Going forward we want to work with Philip to give him opportunities to demonstrate his commitment to our communities as a Lib Dem MP.”

WHAT NEXT?

A general election will see six of its current MPs battle for a seat as Liberal Democrats for the first time.

But the party is aiming high and predicts it will make big gains, Sir Menzies added: “We will get a lot of Lib Dem votes, we’ll get a lot of Lib Dem MPs but I’m much too long in the tooth to be predicting actual numbers.”

Former Leave voter, and now Lib Dem supporter Chris Oram also believes the party’s legacy has shifted from being part of the Cameron coalition government, to being the party trying to stop Brexit.

“I think the Liberal Democrats have come in leaps and bounds but I do think there has to be a reality check that the Liberal Democrats do need to work with other parties in order to push a Remain agenda,” the RemainerNow director said.

“Because that’s what we’ll remember the Lib Dems for now, in years to come. People won’t say the Liberal Democrats they were part of the coalition, they’ll say ‘oh the Liberal Democrats were the ones that tried to pull us out of this awful situation’, the only ones we had at the time.”

But member Lizzy Tomlin warns the party must retain its membership after the Brexit issue.

She told PoliticsHome: “That’s always a fear I’ve always said sometimes we’re seen as like a fad party, we’re that nice home you can go to when you don’t really like Labour or the Conservatives anymore.

“It’s whether we can actually retain that membership that’s going to be the biggest challenge, especially post Brexit.”