The Liberal Democrats: Neither Liberal Nor Democratic



The Liberal Democrats’ new Brexit policy is quite audacious, to put it mildly. At the party conference last weekend, Jo Swinson, the new Lib Dem leader, announced that she wasn’t going to campaign for a second referendum any more. What would be the point, when she’s already said she’d ignore the result if it was the same as last time? No, from now on the official party policy is to simply revoke Article 50. That is, disregard the outcome of the largest democratic contest this country has ever witnessed and tell the European Union that we’ve decided to stay after all.

You’ve got to admire Swinson’s chutzpah. She actually called for an in-out EU referendum in the House of Commons in 2008 – official Lib Dem policy at the time. Having been granted her wish, she now refuses to be bound by the outcome and, instead, wants to carry on as if her side had won. As a father of four, I’ve witnessed this kind of behaviour many times. There’s only one chocolate Hob Nob left, so the two younger boys – Freddie and Charlie – decide to toss for it. Charlie calls tails, the outcome is heads, but instead of graciously letting Freddie have the biscuit, Charlie grabs it, bolts out of the kitchen, locks himself in the loo and stuffs it down his throat. But I never thought I’d see this behaviour from the leader of one of the three main political parties. Charlie is 11. Jo Swinson is 39.

When challenged about her callous disregard for democracy, Swinson has an answer. At least, she thinks she does. She will only be in a position to revoke Article 50, she says, if the Lib Dems win the next General Election. Her party is going into that election making it perfectly clear what it intends to do, so if it wins a majority then she will have a “democratic mandate” to ignore the result of the referendum.

Have you spotted the flaw in this argument? That’s right, the Lib Dems could win a majority in the House of Commons with just 36% of the vote, as Labour did in 2005. Not that that’s remotely likely – the Lib Dems won 7.4% of the vote in 2017, giving the party a grand total of eight seat – but it’s just about conceivable. The trouble is, when it comes to a binary question like whether or not to revoke Article 50, a plurality isn’t sufficient. After all, in those circumstances, even if Swinson could legitimately claim that 36% of the electorate voted to revoke, she would also have to acknowledge that 64% voted not to.

And under what definition of democracy is 36% of the vote sufficient to overturn 52%? It’s particularly rich when you bear in mind that prominent Lib Dems like Nick Clegg have argued that we should disregard the result of the referendum because the Leave side failed to get a “supermajority”. This is the notion that, when it comes to important constitutional questions, a simple majority isn’t enough to abandon the status quo. No, a “supermajority” is required – something like two-thirds. (Talk about moving the goalposts!) Yet now Jo Swinson is telling us that roughly a third of the vote would be sufficient to decide the same issue in favour of Remain. That’s like a three-way dispute over the last remaining Hob Nob and Charlie claiming he should have it because he drew the shortest straw.

You can see why Swinson has gone for this policy. It enables her to position the Lib Dems as the unequivocally pro-Remain party, in contrast to Labour, which is still dilly-dallying over the issue. Until last week, Labour’s official policy, if I understood it correctly, was for Jeremy Corbyn to head off to Brussels to negotiate a watered-down version of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement in which the UK would remain in the Customs Union for ever, then hold a second referendum in which people are given a choice between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – I mean, Remain or Jeremy Corbyn’s deal. Oh, and Labour would campaign for Remain, i.e. against the “new, improved” deal it had just negotiated. But as of this week, Labour has a brand new policy. It’s the same as the above, except with the proviso that Corbyn will remain neutral between those two options and implement whatever the outcome of the second referendum is. Which is to say, he’s officially embraced the Lib Dem’s previous stance, which is to stand in the middle of the road and hope you don’t get run over. (At least, that was Labour’s Brexit policy at the time of going to press. It has probably changed again since then.)

Anyway, with this new, aggressively anti-Brexit stance the Lib Dems get to be the Remain party, with the Tories as the Leave party and Labour somewhere in between. And, in one way, that’s good for our side. It means Swinson has decided to go after Labour’s voters rather than ours. After all, about two-thirds of those who voted Labour in 2017 are pro-Remain, while three-quarters of those who voted Tory are pro-Leave. That could help us in those seats where the Tory candidate came second behind Labour last time – like my constituency of Ealing Central and Acton. If enough voters switch from Labour to the Lib Dems next time, we will pick up those seats. So as you were Jo. Good policy. Carry on.

But a little voice in the back of my head can’t help asking what happens if we’ve already left by the time of the next General Election. Not out of the question, given that Boris is still committed to leaving by October 31st, deal or no deal, and the other parties seem intent on thwarting his attempts to call an election before then. What becomes of the Lib Dems then? Swinson, having gone all-in on Remain, will be campaigning for a policy that, overnight, has been rendered completely irrelevant.

Then again, the Lib Dems are used to being irrelevant, so maybe they’ll be back in their comfort zone.

Toby Young is a broadcaster, writer and journalist. Follow him on twitter: @toadmeister