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17 September 2018

The Lib Dems need to focus on the next general election, not a new Brexit referendum

The party’s focus on a People’s Vote ignores the fact that a general election – and the potentially lethal dangers it poses – is more likely.

By Patrick Maguire

In the dreams that occupied some senior Lib Dems over summer, Gina Miller was supposed to give their flagging party a purpose. As the party drew up its plans to let anybody – including non-MPs – run for leader, the Brexit campaigner’s name was the one most frequently linked to the post.  

It was suggested by several party sources that she was the person the proposed leadership rule changes – spun as a means of creating a “Momentum for Moderates” – were for. This morning, she scotched any lingering misconception that she would run for the job, telling the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton that she was not the party’s “leader in waiting” but rather its friend.

Then, surreally, Miller urged journalists at a subsequent briefing to “stop saying ‘stop Brexit’”, despite her using her speech to call for that very same outcome. She also poured scorn on the biggest campaign for a second referendum, the People’s Vote.

“I don’t like the phrase,” she said. “Also, I don’t know how they can tell it’s not going to be a general election. It’s sort of, almost presuming, you understand, the political landscape and exactly what will happen next. From my view, it’s not defined enough.”

Despite the seemingly contorted logic of her criticism – why campaign against Brexit and then refuse to back the biggest campaign for a vote to stop it? – Miller has a point. Politically, every Liberal Democrat egg is in the second referendum basket.

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Cable and Co make much of their plan for an exit from Brexit, but here in Brighton there is little evidence of much strategic thinking beyond agitating for what activists refuse to call anything but a People’s Vote or, at a push, a third referendum on Europe. A policy shift that would see Article 50 revoked in the event of no deal is in the offing, and delegates admitted that a referendum cannot be an end in itself. But it is for the most part the only political show in town.  

Speaking on the fringe this morning, Layla Moran, the wunderkind of the party’s 2017 intake who is already touted as a future leader, castigated activists who dared admit they were not already planning for a second referendum locally. But there is much less focus on the potential for another Brexit vote: the general election that Gina Miller suggested could be on the way.  

Fighting that would be rather more difficult. The number of constituencies in which the Lib Dems are in second place and might win is much smaller than in previous elections, and the seats the party holds are all marginal. The party would have to reckon with what sources close to Keir Starmer say would be a new (read: softer) Labour party position on Brexit. Polling shows that the Lib Dem Remainer vote is fluid. A vote on Europe in the form of a general election – on balance more likely than a second referendum that would struggle to pass the Commons – could be the last thing they need.

Vince Cable has said the party should not enter into another coalition, and expressed regret that the austerity of the 2010 Parliament could have paved the road to Brexit. Jo Swinson, his deputy, used her speech this morning to argue that it needed to “own the failures” of their five years in government. Nick Clegg disagrees – he told a fringe event that the party should “stop apologising” – as does Ed Davey.  

The party’s unity of purpose as far as a new referendum goes obscures its lack of it on the more important business of surviving as an electoral force. As Brexit day approaches, it could do with reassessing its focus.

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