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22 October 2018updated 07 Jun 2021 3:11pm

Why the Liberal Democrats’ “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan is a stroke of genius

By Stephen Bush

The Liberal Democrats unveiled their manifesto for the European elections last night in Shoreditch. It was what we’ve come to expect from the party: a slick, well put together event that said – both explicitly though a speech given by leader Vince Cable and implicitly through its smooth execution – that they are the largest, most well-organised pro-Remain party and that anyone who wants to stop Brexit should back them at this European elections. They also chucked in plenty of Green lovebombing, managing to talk up their own environmental credentials without mentioning – or more importantly criticising – their competitors in that field.

But all anyone can talk about is the party’s election slogan: “Bollocks to Brexit”. The broadcasters and most of the papers are talking about whether or not they have gone too far with their manifesto’s new message.

Is it a bit much? Anna Soubry certainly thinks so, telling the Times that there is no need to go into “that sort of territory”.

Behind the slogan, the manifesto is a serious document with a commitment to the free movement of people, a zero-carbon target for the whole of the European Union, measures to tackle crime across the bloc, and much else besides. But anyone who thinks that had the Liberal Democrats not opted for a somewhat fruity tagline, we’d instead be talking about the finer points of the European Arrest Warrant or the benefits of wind power is kidding themselves.

Of course, the reason Vince Cable can carry off with a little light cursing is that he is set to stand down as the man who led the Liberal Democrats to their best local election results in the party’s history, whatever happens on 23 May. And if the polls are to be believed, the best is yet to come: his party is on the cusp of beating the Conservatives into third place in the European elections.

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But the two things are linked. Look at the Green Party: it also had the most successful local election results in its history yet has received hardly any coverage as a result. It is being crowded out by the big two political parties, and by the Brexit Party and Change UK, which are shiny and new but for which the case for such prominence is not yet proven.

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It’s not that the Liberal Democrats are a party on the up and up again despite being willing to say over-the-top things to get their issues talked about: it’s that they are a party on the up and up again because they are willing to say over-the-top things to get their issues talked about. The reality of course is that the word “bollocks” isn’t on the party’s direct mail and wasn’t anywhere to be seen on the walls or podium – it’s just a neat bit of political messaging that means that, thanks to some earnest discussions about whether or not the Liberal Democrats are lowering the tone, their real anti-Brexit message is getting an airing that it otherwise wouldn’t from the mainstream press. It’s the same with Caroline Lucas’ championing of a meat tax – it gets her party in the headlines and allows it the space to talk about the rest of its programme in a way.

Soubry might think that there is no need to indulge in that kind of behaviour, but her reluctance to do so, and the wider unwillingness of her new party to come to terms with the different challenge that comes with minor party status, could well doom her party from the get-go.