Mo Metcalf-Fisher is a conservative commentator.
The Liberal Democrats have had a hard time following the aftermath of the 2015 General Election. They lost 49 of their 57 seats and suffered a series of humiliating local council elections. Despite early tough talk from party leader Tim Farron with his vision of taking on the Government, the party continues to receive low polls ratings.
As a result of its neglect on the national scene, the party is desperately trying to champion a major issue. As third parties often have difficulty overcoming the First Past the Post electoral system for seats in Westminster they find it easier to focus on one key element nationally, with an aim of elevating it into the political mainstream and befitting electorally as a result.
The Lib Dems have been successful at this to some extent. Under Charles Kennedy, the party became the largest Westminster bloc in opposition to the Iraq war – winning the safe Labour seat of Leicester South in a by-election in 2004 as a result. Perhaps most significant was the party’s initial platform of abolishing student tuition fees, a policy which helped mobilise a strong student vote but later arguably led to the start of its downfall when it abandoned the pledge.
Following the EU referendum however, the Liberal Democrats have found a new issue and seem set to return to their old tactics.
They have consistently been on the side of increased EU integration and have since jumped on the opportunity to gobble up the frustration of remain voters.
At a recent anti-Brexit march in central London, the Lib Dems led a delegation of protestors and jumped at the opportunity to have their branding splashed out across the array of banners and picket signs.
Tim Farron has crowned himself commander-in-chief of the diehard yet splintered anti-Brexit movement. A pro-EU version of UKIP, if you will. An article in The Independent shortly after June’s referendum found the party had gained an additional 15,000 new members, which it directly attributed to Brexit.
Despite insisting that he wasn’t trying to keep Britain in the EU against the will of the people, Farron has argued for a new referendum which would give voters an option of accepting any new post-Brexit deal or instead voting to stay in the EU under the current terms. In other words, a second referendum on EU membership because people didn’t get it right the first time. This opinion was backed up by Nick Clegg, who called enthusiastic pro-Brexit Tory MPs “swivel-eyed”. Party stalwart Menzies Campbell also talked of remain voter “defiance” against UK departure from the EU. He agrees with Farron and notes that it is only they that can defend the 16 million remain voters.
Should Conservatives be worried?
The problem with this strategy is that it risks alienating a majority of voters. Despite the 52 per cent of leave voters most likely viewing this stance unfavourably, there are many remain voters who have since moved on and will pick their party based on competency for general governance – not on a single issue. However, as the realistic aim for the Lib Dems at the 2020 general election will be holding their eight seats and making nominal gains nationally it’s not a bad strategy, particularly if it’s deployed effectively in areas with high remain support.
Conservatives, particularly in London, need to look out for Lib Dems hijacking Brexit at the 2018 local elections. 2018 could see the official departure of our EU membership and early signs show the Lib Dems will home in on pre-Brexit woes. Leaflets already distributed in boroughs with high remain votes focus almost totally on whipping up frustration with an aim of demonising Brexit supporters. Farron has also talked of bringing the “tanks” to Conservative areas, which given many voted Leave is unlikely to be much of a threat except in London and urban areas where Conservatives have worked hard to make gains. If enough embittered soft Conservative voters and Labour voters switch to the Lib Dems, the party hope to pick up seats.
The tactic also feeds into the wider narrative of a potential “progressive alliance”, as envisaged by Paddy Ashdown, who believes the political climate calls for a merger of soft Labour supporters and Liberal Democrats in defiance to the Conservative government. With uncertainties surrounding the outcome of the Labour leadership elections and the ultimate future of Labour, this is a possibility which cannot be dismissed. You can bet that any alliance will focus heavily on blocking Brexit or doing its very best to keep Britain locked into unfavourable conditions.
Whether or not the Liberal Democrats successfully transfer anti-Brexit sentiment into votes and subsequent election victories remains to be seen, as does the formation of any voting alliance. However, we must be on the lookout for any such developments and reenergise our efforts in provided sufficient opposition to it.
Dedicated sites like Brexit Central and Change Britain are already getting to work on putting forward the positive case for Brexit. Many of the predicted woes from the remain campaign have failed to materialise and these sites provide great material to take back to local residents with any concerns. In areas like London, where remain polled highly, keep the discussion focused on local issues and remind voters of the dangers of high-tax supporting Lib Dems.
What matters for Conservatives is that we continue to talk up Brexit and get as many people excited about the amazing possibilities that exist outside of EU membership. Whilst some sided with the remain campaign during the referendum, the party – as outlined by Theresa May – is dedicated to carrying out the specific wishes of the British people and each of us must make it work. Our country needs unity and we must proudly stand up to the Liberal Democrats and other naysayers in their attempt to divide the country purely for their own electoral gain.