After numerous false starts, are we finally seeing the Lib Dem fightback?
For a party raised on tales of historic by-election wins, the Coalition years often presented a special kind of horror.
At one point as a party spinner I found myself trudging round the lobby explaining our performance in the South Shields by-election (seventh place, behind the BNP and edging out the Monster Raving Loonies by 150 votes) and was reduced to gags like “we always said it was a seven horse race” to preserve some dignity.
Not so long ago it wasn’t absurd for people to question the party’s survival, now there is excited talk of coalitions
Ed Davey remembers those days all too well, but he’s doing his best to make them feel like a distant memory. For his stint as party leader, by-elections have become a blur of massive majorities overturned and photo-op stunts that prompt questions like: “How quickly can you commission a giant cardboard cannon?” and “Have I accidentally taken hallucinogens?” Not so long ago it wasn’t absurd for people to question the party’s survival. Now there is excited talk of coalitions, and lobbyists find themselves nervously wondering if they need to start going to the party’s annual conference again. After numerous false starts is this the Lib Dem fightback?
All this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, the Lib Dems still only have 15 MPs (it once had 63) and by-election wins are much harder to replicate in a national contest where resources are stretched thin and public attention directed elsewhere. But there’s no doubt the party and its members are feeling more confident, their performance in this year’s local elections was good in and of itself but almost as satisfying was the fact they outperformed the expectations of pollsters – who had predicted they would break even – by a margin of over 400 seats.
By-elections can also provide some useful indications about strategy and public sentiment. The party has been excellent at taking advantage of anger at the Conservatives, and everything they are seeing and hearing tells them that sense of fury isn’t going away. Partygate may be recent history, and Liz Truss is no longer in charge, but voters who previously voted Conservative are not showing signs of forgiving or forgetting. For a party that has Conservative-held seats as 19 of its top 20 targets that makes electoral strategy relatively simple.
The disappointment among previous Conservative supporters goes deeper than individuals or one-off scandals. Mortgages keep on going up, frozen tax thresholds are pulling more and more people into higher rates, the NHS seems to be in perpetual crisis. As one party strategist says: “There’s just a feeling from voters that everything is broken.” It doesn’t hurt that the Labour Party will be pushing many of the same themes, although expect the Lib Dems to avoid some of Keir Starmer’s more class-focused rhetoric. Most of the commentary has been about how effective this approach will be in winning seats in the South East of England, but constituencies like Cheadle and Hazel Grove are also in the firing line and there’s even an outside chance of making progress in the supposedly Brexit-friendly South West.
Given all this, what does a good result look like? Ed Davey isn’t about to be making up all the ground lost in the 2015 wipeout, but one of the many indignities of that result was the SNP becoming the third largest party in Westminster, taking over all the advantages that position gives you. It may be too much of a reach for the Lib Dems to turn it around at the next election, but if they come out of it having narrowed the gap and with a block of MPs that hold some legislative influence then the party can feel it is finally on an upward trajectory.
Sean Kemp, former head of media for the Liberal Democrats and special adviser in Downing Street during the coalition government
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.