While the Conservative and Labour parties have pulled themselves apart over Brexit and antisemitism, an electoral force written off just months ago has resurfaced. The Liberal Democrats, who will have a new leader next week, are suddenly, unexpectedly and excitingly back in the reckoning in British politics.
There have been many false dawns in the last 40 years, but recent polls showing them ahead of the two main parties have prompted a legitimate query: could the Lib Dems rule Britain and could Jo Swinson or Ed Davey become the first Liberal prime minister since Lloyd George in the early 1920s?
It is without question that an astonishing revival is going on in a party that almost received the last rites after the 2015 election, punished for being part of a Conservative coalition that imposed a lengthy period of austerity on Britain.
First there was success in May’s local elections and even greater advances in the European contest, where its “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan captured the public mood. Now opinion surveys suggest further advances, which may well be bolstered by the upcoming by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire, where the Remain parties have all stepped aside and united behind the Lib Dem candidate in promising territory.
David Steel’s over-the-top call to his party back in 1981 to go back to their constituencies and prepare for government is always used by commentators as an antidote to excessive optimism about Lib Dem chances.
But this seems to be unlike previous third-party revivals. The utter disarray of both the main parties is a help. But it is the policy that has split them – Brexit – that gives most hope to the Lib Dems.
If the next Prime Minister fails to deliver Brexit, the Conservative vote could be cut in half at a seemingly inevitable general election by a rampant Brexit Party. If a No Deal Brexit results in catastrophe, it could be the party most associated with Remain that picks up the spoils. That party, at this time, is the Lib Dems.
The moment the voting public begin to see them as a potential government everything changes. Which is why you hear Jo Swinson, favourite to take over the reins from Vince Cable, happy to indulge in what would have seemed like a fantasy just months ago.
Interviewed recently she said the Lib Dems had an historic opportunity to change the face of British politics. “We have had in our history of the Liberal Democrats and predecessor parties various points at which it has been tantalisingly close to totally breaking the mould of British politics.
“We have an even better opportunity now and that’s what we absolutely do need to grab hold of,” she told The Herald.
But when asked if the Lib Dems, with just a dozen MPs, could possibly expect to increase their number by 300 to form the next Government, the deputy leader replied: ‘It is ambitious. I’m not under-estimating it at all. Politics is volatile… It is this volatility that gives me optimism. While there are no guarantees, there is an opportunity and that’s why I don’t set any limit on our ambitions.”
Asked again if she seriously believes the Lib Dems could beat both the Tories and Labour to Downing Street, Swinson replied: “Why not? Seriously, we are talking about the disintegration of the two-party system. We have four parties all hovering around 20 per cent in the opinion polls at the moment and I do believe there are millions of people out there who are crying out for an alternative.”
You might expect a leadership favourite to say that, but it is a prospect, while remaining unlikely, that neither the pollsters nor other parties will dismiss. Indeed, there is every sign that Labour fears losing its long-held place as the main party of the centre-left. Labour’s recent shift towards supporting the idea of a second referendum, reluctantly backed by leader Jeremy Corbyn, was undoubtedly driven in part by its collapse in the polls at a time when it should really be seizing the Government by the throat.
Polling experts say the Lib Dems need to reach “tipping point” before they can hope to fulfil their dream of regaining power as head of a centre-left coalition, or, more outlandishly, on their own. There is no technical electoral reason why either could not happen one day. The problem is that people don’t believe it can.
It was a YouGov poll in The Times last month putting the Lib Dems on 24 per cent and ahead of the Tory, Labour and Brexit parties that stirred the romantics praying for an upheaval in the political system in the wake of parliament’s inability to agree on a way to implement the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Anthony Wells, director of research at YouGov, urged people not to get too excited, arguing that it was too early to write off the two-party system and pointing out that in the 2017 general election Labour and Conservatives won a combined 82 per cent of the votes.
However, Wells believes there are circumstances in which the Lib Dems could soar higher. Previous revivals in the 1980s and 1990s and this century have petered out when people have deserted the third party because they regarded support for them as a wasted vote, believing the two party system could not be demolished. “It was often said that if everyone who actually supported the Lib Dems voted for them they would win,” he said. “They ended up being squeezed.” A classic example was in the 1992 general election, when late polls suggested the Lib Dems were being supported by established Conservative voters, only for them to be deserted at the last breath by Tories fearing a victory by Labour’s Neil Kinnock.
Wells said that the tipping point for the Lib Dems would come if enough voters came to regard them as having supplanted Labour or the Conservatives as one of the main parties. And he saw opposition to Brexit rather than fear of a Corbyn government as the more likely potential disruptive factor that could put them in first or second place in the mind of voters.
In the two scenarios for an early election – the blocking of Brexit or total chaos after a No Deal outcome – the party which the country saw as the party of Remain would clearly do well, said Wells. “If that party were the Lib Dems and not Labour, all bets are off,” he added.
This, of course, according to senior Labour politicians, is why Corbyn has been forced, under huge pressure from colleagues, to come round finally to backing a second referendum on whatever deal the next prime minister manages to secure from the EU. Labour’s support in the polls has fallen since 2017 because of its ambivalence on membership of the EU, a fact that close colleagues of Corbyn, like shadow chancellor John McDonnell, have been ramming home in private. The big question is whether, having prevaricated for so long, Labour’s Remain supporters will believe the switch is genuine or purely opportunistic.
And if 30 Labour MPs in Leave areas do indeed try to help prime minister Boris Johnson get a deal across the line before 31 October, what chance then of Labour portraying itself as the home of Remain?
The Lib Dems have always campaigned for proportional representation – allocating seats fairly in Parliament according to a party’s share of the vote. But they will have to live for the foreseeable future with first-past-the-post. According to Wells, that is not in itself an impediment to a major advance.
“First past the post is tough on small parties with an evenly distributed vote. At 20 per cent of the vote, the Lib Dems may only get 20 to 25 seats, because their votes are spread out. In contrast, at 20 per cent, Labour would get far more than 20 seats because their votes are more concentrated in urban areas.
“But once you get over the tipping point, first-past-the-post would be good for a party with an evenly distributed vote like the Lib Dems. While a Conservative landslide probably translates into 350 to 400 seats because they’d just be piling up more and more votes in Tory areas, a Lib Dem landslide could be more because they can win in more places,” he said.
So let’s talk to Alastair Campbell, who was suspended from the Labour party for voting Lib Dem in the European elections. Michael Heseltine was suspended from the Tory whip in the Lords for the same offence. Campbell warns that Labour will pay a heavy price unless it gets it right.
He told me: “I voted Lib Dem not because I am Lib Dem but because I am Labour and it was an attempt, and I knew a lot of other people were doing the same, to show Labour there was a price to be paid for not doing the right thing on Brexit.
“What the elections, marches and petitions have shown is that there is a huge body of opinion that wants Labour to be true to its internationalist traditions and values and do a much harder job in challenging the Government over Brexit.”
Labour is missing the chance to highlight that just 0.25 per cent of the population are choosing the next prime minister, he said, while Brexiteers are saying that a People’s Vote to revisit the Brexit question would be undemocratic.
“We are in an era of politics when strong clear positions tend to break through and are rewarded. I sense that Johnson will become very unpopular very quickly and in that situation ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ is a very strong message. I have appealed against my expulsion. I consider myself to be Labour and want to be part of the debate inside the party going forward. If the Labour party does not do the right thing on Brexit, it will pay a heavy price.”
It is a view shared by a majority of Labour MPs who want to see the party call for a second referendum and to campaign for Remain when it happens.
Another senior Labour figure said that the prospect of a Liberal-led government might sound ludicrous but “we are in a position where anything can happen because of Labour’s disastrous polling position. Labour is haemorrhaging support over Brexit mainly to Remain but also to the Brexit party, but it is also because of Corbyn. In 2017, Corbyn did well because everyone thought Theresa May would win and nobody took seriously the idea that Corbyn would be PM. In recent weeks they have looked at that prospect and don’t like it.
“If an election comes I don’t think the country are going to allow it to be a choice between Corbyn and Johnson. The nation won’t have that. They may look elsewhere and it is perfectly possible that something extraordinary could happen. The country will want to punish both parties over Brexit, the Conservatives for the mess they have inflicted and Labour for having failed to rise to the challenge over Brexit. The Corbyn bubble has burst. People will want to punish both of them. How they do it, I’m not sure, but Swinson could be the beneficiary.”
There is another development that works for the Lib Dems. Unite to Remain, a new grouping chaired by Heidi Allen, the former Tory and now Independent MP for South Cambridgeshire, is working to ensure that the Remain party with the best chance of winning is not challenged by other parties in individual seats.
The failure to have such an arrangement proved costly for Change UK, which made no progress in the European elections.
It has worked, however, in Brecon and Radnorshire – meaning the Lib Dem candidate Jane Dodds has been given a clear run, with Plaid Cymru and the Greens pulling out. If the trend of uniting behind a single Remain candidate becomes a nationwide phenomenon, it will be to the huge benefit of the Lib Dems who are the leading Remain party in a plethora of seats.
Allen says: “Given the high likelihood of a general election soon, we must also begin urgent preparations to maximise our chance of returning to Parliament as many Remain-supporting MPs as possible.
“This will require modern, country-first, cross-party collaboration across the nation and we are committed to working with and supporting all other Remain parties and Independents who share this goal.
“Our country is crying out for mature and progressive politics, not a Government elected to pursue old ideology from the Left or Right.”
Whether they would do it formally or not is unclear, but the Remain parties are confident they would be supported by the strongly pro-European Scottish National Party in any electoral pact designed to keep out the Tories and the Brexit Party.
There are voices, however, in both the Lib Dems and Labour who urge caution about throwing all their eggs in the Remain basket
A former cabinet minister who opposes everything Corbyn stands for said that, ironically, he might have got it right over Brexit.
He believed that Labour was on the verge of finally going all-out for a second referendum at precisely the time when the country may be ready to move on. “A policy that has been popular for the last two years could become unpopular very quickly,” he said.
What about the Lib Dem doubters? Their vote in the Brexit supporting constituency of North Norfolk went up in the local elections. There was a 59 per cent vote for Leave in 2016. But, in May, the Lib Dems there secured the seventh biggest swing in the country. It gained control of the council and the Lib Dems now have 30 out of the 34 seats.
Sir Norman Lamb, the Lib Dem MP there, accepted his party was suddenly in pole position, propelled by a sequence of events.
“I think you cannot any longer say it is impossible that we could form a government or a significant part of it. Equally you have to say the situation is so volatile that it is hard to make any judgements or predictions. But the volatility means anything is possible.
“I’ve just spoken to a Conservative MP who was really anxious about what would happen if the election threw up unpredictable results with four parties at around 20 per cent. One of our difficulties in the past is that support has been spread across the country and that has meant we might get 23, 24, 25 per cent but only a small number of seats. That may be changing because of this concentration of support over the Remain-Brexit divide.”
So North Norfolk proves the Lib Dems can advance in non-Remain areas.
There were similar stories elsewhere. The arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg now has a Lib Dem councillor in his home Mendip ward of Bath and North-East Somerset council after the dumping of the Conservative council leader.
The last time
The period 1906–15, during which the foundations of the British welfare state were laid, was the last during which the Liberals held power alone.
In 1915, during the first world war, the Liberal H.H. Asquith formed a national coalition government with the Conservative and Labour parties; this was then continued by David Lloyd George, the last Liberal prime minister, who resigned in 1922.
Lamb, however, offered a note of caution about the Lib Dems relying solely on the Brexit divide. “It is not a divide I feel comfortable with. I do believe that the person who leads Britain should be able to bridge the divide that has developed.
“There needs to be far more thought given to why people voted as they did in the referendum – and then an action plan to address many legitimate grievances from those communities who feel they have been completely ignored by the elite in London.”
He added: “Any thought that we can just return to the status quo before the referendum is for the birds. We need a new settlement and a compelling vision for our country which brings people back together again.”
It is a potent message that Swinson or Davey would do well to take on board if they lead their party.
The pollster Anthony Wells remained circumspect. “I think there is always a tendency to over-estimate the prospect of exciting things happening. The two old parties have been around a long time and we like to speculate more about the unlikely than the likely.”
Even so, Brexit has turned politics upside down and long-established laws of political gravity no longer apply.
Something is stirring. The arrival from Labour via Change UK of Chuka Umunna was a huge boost for the incoming new Lib Dem leader. Party sources believe more defectors will come on board and there have been talks with potential Tory deserters.
Umunna, who faced some ridicule for stepping from party to party to party, admitted he had underestimated how difficult it was to set up a new party.
“It’s quite clear that there isn’t room for more than one centre-ground option, particularly under the first past the post in UK politics,” he said, speaking of a “good handful” of new arrivals from the main parties.
There will be much more speculation over the next few months. “Can the Lib Dems break the mould?” was the headline on an article in The Times in September 2003 after the party took the Brent East by-election. It had been asked many times before.
It will be a question asked many times again as Britain tries to navigate through the fog in the Channel.
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