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What is the point of the Liberal Democrat campaign?

I’ll admit it. I simply don’t “get” the Liberal Democrat campaign.

I’ll admit it. I simply don’t “get” the Liberal Democrat campaign.

I understand their ground strategy; to rigorously and ruthlessly target their resources on the seats they think they can hold, mostly within those areas where they remain in control at a local and national level.

It may be at this point that they’ve simply decided that nothing they say at a national level will get a fair hearing but, for appearances’ sake if nothing else, they have to maintain the impression of a full-fledged campaign. Because as an attempt to win voters it simply doesn’t make sense.

Nick Clegg tells the Guardian:

“The looming question in the next phase of this campaign is whether there is to be a coalition of grievance, or of conscience. The last thing the British economy needs is the instability and factionalism that those coalitions of grievance of right and left represents.”

For anyone who found that impenetrable, a “coalition of grievance” equals any coalition backed up by Ukip or the SNP. A coalition of conscience is one supported by the Liberal Democrats. Now Ukip take more votes from the Liberal Democrats than you might think – around 20 to 30 per cent of Ukip voters backed that party in 2010 – and while the SNP won’t take that many votes from Clegg’s party they are on course to win ten seats from the Liberals in Scotland. But the votes that they have lost to Ukip are the votes of people who don’t want to support a governing party at all; that Ukip are shut out by the electoral system is a feature, not a bug as far as these voters are concerned. They cannot compete with Nigel Farage’s outfit on that.

The votes they have lost to the SNP, meanwhile, are voters who are either disgusted with their alliance with the Tories or who want to leave the United Kingdom. The Liberals cannot compete with the Nationalists on Tory-bashing and they don’t want to leave the United Kingdom.

And the central message – vote Liberal Democrat to avoid a coalition with the SNP or Ukip – is, if anything, a better argument for voting for one of the big two than it is to vote Liberal. If you prefer a Labour government free of SNP influence, your best bet is to vote Labour, almost regardless of where you live. If you prefer a Conservative administration shorn of Ukip, again, there’s little reason to vote Liberal Democrat.

It comes back to that question from Jeremy Browne that the Liberals still can’t seem to answer:

“Every political party and every politician has to be able to answer the question, ‘If you didn’t exist why would it be necessary to invent you?’ I’m not sure it would be necessary to invent an ill-defined moderating centrist party that believed that its primary purpose was to dilute the policies of other political parties.”

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.