Mark Leftly: Are the Liberal Democrats the party of rejoin?

Posted On: 
8th May 2019

The next leader of the Liberal Democrats will face a fundamental choice, writes Mark Leftly – does the party want to be a liberal, social democratic force, or a single-issue pressure group?

Sir Vince Cable during the launch of the Liberal Democrat campaign for European elections at the Dock Gallery in London.
Credit: 
PA Images

The next leader of the Liberal Democrats faces an existential crisis over the party’s obsession of the past three years: Brexit. 

Vince Cable was right to double-down on an implacable, second referendum-at-all-costs Brexit position when he took over as leader in 2017. By most measures this has proved successful: council by-election wins across the country; the two best local government election results since 2003 and surveys suggesting that half the country understands the Lib Dems’ position on the biggest issue in a generation.

This last figure is well ahead of the public’s understanding of the Labour and Conservative positions and represents remarkable cut-through for what was little more than a fringe party following the rout of 2015. Even by the weakest measure, opinion poll ratings, the party is 50-100% better off than two years ago.

Cable has been on something of a long goodbye since last summer, recently confirming he would leave ahead after the council elections. His leadership has taken place in the deepest, darkest shadow of Brexit and it will be up to the next leader to resolve the conundrum of the party’s EU stance if and when the UK leaves.  

The party has plans to announce the leadership election this month, meaning Cable’s replacement should be in post by July. The two definite candidates are home affairs spokesman Ed Davey, who has been putting a team in place for months, and deputy leader Jo Swinson, who is likely to be able to count on high-profile support from the likes of Christine Jardine, the Edinburgh West MP, and James McGrory, who was previously Nick Clegg’s spin doctor.

Whoever the candidates, the delay to Brexit has done them a favour. On the safe assumption that there’s no sudden Parliamentary agreement on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, the candidates can ignore any question on what the party’s policy on the EU will be post-Brexit by simply stating that the most important thing for the economy is to stay in and that is why they will continue to fight for a People’s Vote.

That’s fine, but the likelihood is that very shortly into the winner’s reign the UK will leave the EU. Then, the leader will have to decide whether the Lib Dems become the party of ‘rejoin’.

This is not as straightforward an answer as it first appears.

The leading contenders and senior party figures, including Vince, know that the policy would be difficult to defend, given the country would only ever be able to return to the EU on far worse terms, with no rebate. The UK’s re-entry might even be conditional on joining the single currency.

Moreover, senior figures in the party fear that the last thing most moderate voters will want to hear about ever again is the EU, after years of Brexit, as Vince puts it, “sucking the life out of Westminster”. Banging on about a second referendum in the years when Brexit has consumed politics was unavoidable; to do so when the matter is seemingly settled – for better or worse – confirms the party to be a single issue pressure group.

As a former staffer to Farron, who represents the rural seat of Westmorland & Lonsdale, puts it: “How on earth can Tim go back to Cumbria and tell Brexiteering farmers who have finally got their wish: ‘Yay! We’re the party that wants to get back in the EU’?”

But any sign that the party is softening its stance is internally dangerous. As leaked last year, the party’s finances are in a dire state, but most of the big donations that have come in, including from Pimlico Plumbers’ boss Charlie Mullins, have been because of that firm remain stance.

Donations would therefore come under threat and, worse still, the party risks losing tens of thousands of members. The party’s membership is not quite at its recent peak, but is said to still be comfortably in the 90-odd thousands. Basically, membership has doubled in recent years, largely because it has attracted staunch remainers. If the Lib Dems are not overtly the party of re-join, my estimation is that membership will crumble shortly afterwards.

At present, Change UK does not feel like a long-term threat given its lack of infrastructure and lack of political definition. To Cable’s eternal credit, he was the only mainstream politician who truly identified this loose coalition of disaffected Labour and Conservative MPs – he wooed them for basically the entirety of last year and, as a result, he was able to prepare the party for Change UK’s emergence.

By offering to work with Change UK straightaway, the Lib Dems looked collaborative – better still, Heidi Allen, Chuka Umunna et al appeared churlish in largely rebuffing those advances.

However, Change UK is staunchly pro-European and, to carve out an identity, it is likely the party will have a policy of ‘rejoin’ – particularly if that means outflanking a Lib Dem party that shows any timidity on Europe. Those Lib Dem members who characterise themselves as ‘Europhiles’ rather than liberals or social democrats will have an obvious new home.

Of course, not everyone shares that view. One long-serving MP says: “Look, a lot of these new members were always Lib Dems really, but it was Brexit that got them involved. Now we’ve got traction with them and they’ve maybe been councillors or stood for Parliament, they will be thinking ‘Right, what else have you got?’ and want to stay.”

If that MP is right, then the Lib Dems maybe haven’t got a problem and can be much quieter about the EU in coming years, but I have my doubts. It’s inconceivable that a Lib Dem conference some time soon won’t pass a vote that will make rejoining party policy – and, as I’ve seen first-hand, the leader has a worrying lack of autocracy on matters of policy.

At that point, the new leader will have a choice: go bold and make sure that 50%-plus of a country suffering from Brexit fatigue know that the Lib Dems are still droning on about Brexit, or hide that policy and risk alienating the membership.

Mark Leftly is the former press secretary to Vince Cable and a senior consultant at Powerscourt