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19 July 2018

What is the point of the Lib Dems if their leaders won’t turn up to vote against Brexit?

The absence of Vince Cable and Tim Farron from crucial votes was an unutterable display of idiocy.

By Hannah Jane Parkinson

Absurdity becomes more common in politics by the day. We now live in a world in which common sense is apparently rationed, and the unfathomable has become quotidian. Even so, leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, and former leader, Tim Farron, not even bothering to turn up to votes on crucial Brexit amendments – when their party has made stopping Brexit its central tenet – is breath-taking.

The customs amendment, put forward by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s bullying European Research Group, passed by just six votes. A separate vote on remaining part of the EU’s VAT regime (also the ERG) passed by just three votes. Farron was in Dorset giving a talk, while Cable had a “very important” meeting that he refuses to elaborate on. What is more important than voting down hard Brexit amendments when the Lib Dems have purported to care deeply about how a hard Brexit would impact the country, and (rightly) chastised Labour for dragging its feet?

Cable and Farron have since apologised. Farron “misjudged” the vote, he said: “We clearly called it wrong”, explaining that he didn’t think the vote would be close. It was in fact exceedingly close, and had he and Cable had voted – and a few more MPs been persuaded to go against – the government would have been defeated, which could have led to a vote of no-confidence and a collapse of government, which makes their absence an unutterable display of idiocy. There’s also the fact that not voting because one doesn’t think it will make a different completely undermines democracy and the principle of the sanctity of having a vote.

There are plenty of individuals, for instance, who live in safe seats but make the effort to go out and vote regardless because it is their democratic right. Then there’s the fact that so many people did not vote in the EU referendum because, they too, assumed an inevitable outcome; that Remain would romp home. Now look where we are. That Cable and Farron didn’t even make that connection is staggering. What an example, too, for the leader and former leader to set for their party colleagues.

At this point it is salient to ask: what even is the point of the Lib Dems? Wiped out at the 2015 general election, it repositioned itself during its 2017 campaign as the party of anti-Brexit and liberalism, but has since seen a leader step down for refusing to agree that same sex was not sinful, and is now led by a man whose greatest contribution to public life in recent years has been ballroom dancing.

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There are stars in the party, contrary to Cable and Farron’s laissez faire attitude, Lib Dem Jo Swinson, who is away from parliament on maternity leave, was furious when Tory Brandon Lewis reneged on their pairing arrangement in the next day’s trade and medicines crunch votes, and Norman Lamb continues to admirably campaign on mental health, even though frankly the coalition’s record was mostly dire.

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But for a party that ended up in the doldrums precisely because it became known for broken promises (hello, tuition fees) and being a sell-out of its principles to a Tory coalition partner, with its actions continuously falling short of its words; swerving its on-brand vote is the final straw.

The Lib Dem spokesman, Tom Brake, had the audacity to criticise Theresa May for accepting the ERG amendments to her Chequers agreement even after Cable and Farron had missed the vote, and despite the fact 14 Tory MPs had rebelled. The Lib Dem chief whip, Alastair Carmichael, (who, remember, aside from himself, has the responsibility of just a football team number of MPs) admitted he had “messed up”, because he didn’t follow the change in Labour’s voting position – it’s almost as if he doesn’t understand how politics works. It’s almost as if there was no means to contact and keep Cable and Farron up to date – if only we lived in a time where technology had advanced to allow quick communication.

The latest YouGov polls put voting intentions for the Lib Dems at just nine per cent, just two percentage points above Ukip. I’d put it at even less than that after this debacle given that surely the only reason people would vote for the Lib Dems was their “stop Brexit” raison d’etre.

At a time when the Conservatives, and the government in particular, are – Siri, what’s a more palatable word for clusterfuck? – while Labour is busy messing with widely accepted definitions of anti-Semitism in its code of conduct and choosing a poodle as its dog in the Brexit fight, we need as many sensible politicians willing to stick their necks on the line as possible. This was the surest hope of the government collapsing before the recess, the surest chance of a general election being called and a possible way out of the Brexit bust. To use another footballing metaphor, these opposition MPs are not fit to wear the shirt.