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22 February 2024

Will the Lib Dems seize their chance to replace the Tories?

Rather than acting as a protest party, the Lib Dems should aim to become the natural political home for the centre right.

By David Gauke

Imagine, for the moment, that the next general election delivers a big Labour majority. The Conservatives are reduced to a rump of 150 seats; the Liberal Democrats advance strongly in the Home Counties and end up with 40 to 50 seats. The strategy of being an anti-Tory protest party has worked well enough to turn the “Blue Wall” yellow.  

What happens next? Not for the Tories (I had a go at that last week), but for the Lib Dems?

The opportunity for them would be huge. While the Conservatives (I expect) will contemplate an accommodation with Nigel Farage and Reform, a Labour government would face economic challenges that could soon lead to unpopularity. The votes of the moderate, pro-business middle class would be up for grabs.  

The Lib Dems could carry on as they were, but there is no obvious route to power, and their success would depend on the Conservatives continuing to repel many of their traditional supporters (which, to be fair, would probably be a good bet for the time being).  

But play their cards right and the Lib Dems could become the natural political home for the liberal centre right. Do that and British politics (or, to be more precise, English politics) could become a genuine three-party fight consisting of a social democratic Labour Party, a pro-market liberal party and a populist party of the right. In those circumstances, the populist Tories – dependent on an ageing cohort of voters – would have little chance of ever again forming a parliamentary majority.

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Will the Lib Dems seize this opportunity? To answer this question requires me to indulge in a bit of personal history.  

In September 2019, Boris Johnson withdrew the whip from 21 Conservative MPs, myself included, who had voted to oppose a no-deal Brexit. A general election was clearly not far away and some of the whipless Conservatives did not want it to result in a Johnson majority. On behalf of others, I approached the Lib Dems and offered a deal. If they would give former Tory MPs a clear run in ten to 15 seats, we would endorse them in the other 600-plus seats and agree to cooperate closely with them if elected. This, I argued, would demonstrate that the Tory party had properly split, and that moderate Conservatives should vote elsewhere.

Initially, the Lib Dems did not reject the proposal but nor did they show much enthusiasm. By the time we got to late October – when a general election had been called – the idea had been overtaken by events. Three of us decided to run as independents in any event. In Beaconsfield, the local Lib Dems acted unilaterally to back Dominic Grieve. But in Guildford (admittedly, a Lib Dem target seat) they stood against Anne Milton and in South West Hertfordshire (where they had no chance of overturning the Tory majority) they decided to stand against me.

I spent hours talking to Lib Dems at all levels trying to persuade them otherwise, but their rationale was informative. They were focused on winning over the votes of Labour voters in their nearest target seat of St Albans and they feared endorsing me would put such voters off. (I was a little surprised at the idea that anyone in St Albans had a strong view about me one way or the other.)  

The big fear for the Lib Dems, they told me, was the Labour charge that they were “yellow Tories”. I argued that the only way a Johnson majority was going to be stopped was by winning over the votes of moderate “yellow Tories”, but it was to no avail.

Had the Lib Dems decided otherwise, would it have changed the general election result or even the result in South West Hertfordshire? Almost certainly not, although a bold offer to the rebel Conservatives – offering a free run in a dozen seats – might have done Johnson some damage. My point is that it revealed the Lib Dems’ instincts and strategy. They saw themselves and their voters as being left-of-centre. Their objective was to replace a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party as the leading party of the centre left.

That was not an ignoble ambition, even if it was going to come at the cost of a Johnson majority in 2019 and a very hard Brexit. In the event, of course, Johnson got his majority and hard Brexit, but Labour has reasserted its dominance of the centre left.  

More than four years on from this failure, the Lib Dems no longer aspire to replace Labour, though the focus, as Freddie Hayward sets out in the New Statesman, is still on winning over Labour voters in seats where the Lib Dems are best-placed to defeat the Tories. That is likely to prove to be fruitful at the next election, but then what? It will not be enough to win the permanent allegiance of traditional moderate Conservatives looking for more than a protest vote. 

After the election, the Lib Dems would be faced with a choice. Seize the territory vacated by the Conservatives and become the party of the liberal centre and centre right, or continue as the country’s second-favourite party of the centre left, perhaps picking up the votes of disillusioned Labour voters as Keir Starmer faces the reality of government. The former strategy would create an existential threat to the Tories, but the revealed preference of the Lib Dems – whether in 2019 or in 2024 – suggests that it will be the latter. If so, it will be a lucky break for the Conservatives.

[See also: Matthew Elliot: We haven’t made the most of Brexit]


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