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19 January 2023

Why won’t the Lib Dems fill the anti-Brexit void?

The party’s refusal to make an unashamed case for rejoining the EU is bewildering.

By David Gauke

It is increasingly commonplace for people to complain that Keir Starmer is too cautious on Brexit. The economic damage done by Britain leaving the EU is becoming clearer, the case for a much closer relationship with the EU is getting stronger, and public opinion is on the move. If – as many economists believe – the UK is going to underperform most other European economies in the next year or so, support for a much closer relationship with the EU is likely to grow. Labour, the argument goes, should be taking the lead.

It is an argument for which I have a lot of sympathy, having made the case even before our recent economic travails shifted public opinion. It is hard to make the argument that a Labour government would have a material and positive impact on economic growth when it ignores the biggest policy lever, which would have a material and positive impact on economic growth.

There is, at least, a political case for Labour avoiding the topic. A large number of its seats went Conservative last time around because ex-Labour supporters who voted Leave in 2016 and wanted to “get Brexit done” switched to the Tories. Ensure that Brexit is not an issue, thinks Starmer, and they will return to Labour and the Tories will lose their majority.

Perhaps this is correct, even if ducking the issue will make the task of a Labour government (without a mandate to properly rebuild our relationship with the EU) much harder. But there is a political party that does not have to concern itself with the Red Wall, which could make an unambiguously pro-European case but doesn’t: the Liberal Democrats.

On the face of it, there is an open goal in front of them. When 57 per cent of the public say that, given the choice, they would like to rejoin the EU but the two biggest parties are adamant that this should never happen, the opportunity for the third party is surely considerable. Why not endorse EU membership, at least as a long-term objective?

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Actually, that is their policy. Go to their website, look up their values and sixth on the list is “internationalism” where they declare their support for “collaboration with the UK’s neighbours – including, ultimately, rejoining the EU”. Who knew?

Possibly not even their leader. When Ed Davey was pressed about Brexit in a New Statesman interview with Freddie Hayward last month, he focused on reforming the Trade and Cooperation Agreement – Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal – to allow the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. All very good but somewhat lacking the boldness of “ultimately rejoining the EU”. It was obvious that he wanted to discuss other matters, saying that voters on the doorstep “don’t talk about Brexit”.

[See also: Inside the Lib Dems’ general election strategy]

I confess that I spend much less time on the doorstep these days than Davey but this is already starting to look outdated, with both the voters and the media increasingly recognising that the UK has a big problem with its relationship to the EU, and it needs to be fixed.

A clear Lib Dem position would dramatically increase their media profile, give them cover for an attractive retail offer to the electorate (boosting GDP by a couple of points, which is a perfectly plausible outcome of a much closer relationship, would be enough to fund a substantial voter-friendly spending increase or tax cut), and give their activists something in which to believe. It would also put Labour under some pressure to move its position, handing the Lib Dems real influence. Oh, and it would also be in the country’s best interests.

The reluctance to engage with the issue is, presumably, a consequence of the Lib Dems’ disastrous 2019 general election campaign. This should have been a breakthrough moment for them, but a combination of the fear that a vote for the Liberal Democrats may have let in Jeremy Corbyn and the ill-judged policy to revoke Brexit without a referendum meant they went backwards.

Scarred by the experience, they have reverted to being an all-things-to-all-people protest party that seeks to win elections by not saying anything controversial and delivering more leaflets than their opponents. Having won two parliamentary by-elections in Brexit-voting constituencies and with aspirations to re-establish themselves in the Leave-leaning West Country, the Liberal Democrats may fear that a strong pro-EU message will give them too much definition.

This is a mistake. The strategic opportunity for the Lib Dems is to attract the support of the prosperous and educated middle classes who have become disillusioned with the Conservatives. Freddie’s piece from earlier this week on the Lib Dems’ general election strategy suggested that this was their approach, aiming to win the votes of “lifelong Tories” and the “Surrey shufflers”, young couples moving out of London to Surrey and Hertfordshire.

As someone who lives in, and used to represent, a constituency made up of many Remain-supporting professionals who used to live in London, I think the opportunity is now there – even if Rishi Sunak is more highly regarded by these voters than his two predecessors. But it requires the Lib Dems to lose their reticence on Europe.

There is a demand for a political party to make the case for restoring a sensible relationship with the EU. Labour’s refusal to do so is unwise but understandable; the Liberal Democrats’ is bewildering. They should take the opportunity while they can.

[See also: Christopher Harborne: the silent donor behind Brexit and Boris Johnson]

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