Coalition came close to killing the Liberal Democrats, but Brexit delivered them a startling resuscitation – or so it seemed a few months ago, as local elections loomed. In 2015, they were discredited in the eyes of almost a third of their former voters by governing with the effing Tories – reduced to a rump of eight MPs in the Commons; shorn of nearly all their former Ministerial talent.
But scarcely more than a year later, they were suddenly handed a near-monopoly on a popular cause by the referendum result. The Conservatives became the pro-Leave party. Labour became the neither-quite-Remain-nor-Leave party, pulled in one direction by their voters in London and in the other by those elsewhere. That left the Lib Dems, reduced from the might of government in 2010 to a mere 15 per cent of the vote five years later, with 48 per cent of the electorate to pitch directly to.
During the run-up to the local elections, the Lib Dems were polling well in local government by-elections. But on the day, the party didn’t make the breakthrough that it hoped for. It failed to snatch Somerset from the Conservatives. Its tally of councillors fell, not rose. Today, Tim Farron launches its election manifesto, and we ask: what happened – and what’s happening?
The Liberal Democrats appear to be grappling with six main problems.
First, that 48 per cent is less solid than it looks. Indeed, it isn’t really 48 per cent at all – for the simple reason that about half of those who backed Remain last June now believe that leaving is a done deal. They are willing to “concede and move on”, as the modernisation textbook phrase puts it.
Second, EU membership is not a priority even among some of the remaining 25 per cent. Their electoral priorities are the same as nearly everyone else’s: family, living standards, work, public services. The party’s offer of a second referendum may be a turn-off to some even among this group. (“Oh, no – not at that all over again”.)
Third, the Lib Dems are struggling for cut-through even among those voters, and the younger ones to whom they are pitching. They want housing benefit restored to 18-21-year-olds, a young person’s bus pass, and votes for 16- and 17-year-olds. But this demographic has not yet forgiven the party for tuition fees.
Fourth, the party has lost most of its stars. Vince Cable, David Laws, Steve Webb: all were first-rank serving politicians and leant the Lib Dems real gravitas. There is little sense of there being a heavyweight Lib Dem team ready to do governing work.
Fifth, Tim Farron is having a sticky election. First, he was probed over his views on gay sex. Now, he is being quizzed about his stance on abortion. It’s tricky for a man of evangelical Christian belief to lead the most secular of the three main parties. (Consider its view, for example, of faith schools.)
Finally, the party’s votes may be piling up where they are least useful to it. The Remain heartlands are London, where the party starts from a low base, and parts of its plusher suburbs and surrounding counties, where the Tories are deeply dug in.
None of these factors suggest a big breakthrough. We are where we really were at the turn of the year. In other words, the Lib Dems are competitive in south-west Greater London. They have a decent shot at some plusher seats elsewhere, especially if they have lots of students: Bath, Cheltenham, Cambridge.
And that’s about it. Margaret Thatcher once likened the party to a dead parrot. But if it isn’t exactly among the dead, it isn’t really among the quick, either. Rather, it is moulting feathers, slowly restoring itself, waiting for a new chance – which, most likely, will come if Labour splits after the election, and the new electoral force that Tony Blair is angling for comes into being.