How many seats can the Liberal Democrats expect to win at the next general election? That’s the question hanging over the party’s conference in Bournemouth, and the inevitable one posed by the defections of Labour and Tory MPs whose seats their new party appears – on paper at least – to have little chance of winning.
Until recently, the official answer was 40 – the number of core target seats identified by Lib Dem HQ. Addressing reporters after his first conference speech as a Lib Dem MP this morning, Chuka Umunna said he would be disappointed if the party came out of the next election with anything less.
Yet the leadership’s sights are set even higher. At a meeting in Westminster last week, candidates for the first 40 seats on the core target list were told that it had doubled in length to 80. Some of the 40 – a number of whom will be attempting to win from third place – were left taken aback. “I don’t know if they know something we don’t,” says one, “but they really do believe they can do it”.
Why the optimism? According to Umunna, the answer lies in the party’s internal polling, which played a big part in his decision to seek election in Cities of London and Westminster rather than Streatham. “If there’s a 1.5 to 2 per cent swing, we can get up 100 seats,” he said. “And if there is a five per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats through the course of the campaign, 200 seats are in contention.” The more the public saw and liked of Swinson, Umunna said, the likelier the prospect of clearing those higher bars would become.
That kind of upbeat talk speaks to the defining mood of this year’s conference: the official line is that Brexit has upended the traditional electoral calculus, a realigning election is overdue, and that the Lib Dems stand to benefit. Some of them really do mean it when they talk about forming a majority government. But for older hands, it will set alarm bells ringing. Even before people started talking about numbers as big as 200 with straight faces, veterans of past campaigns were already distinctly uneasy at the scale of the party’s ambition.
Some fear the party is at risk of forgetting the precarious majorities it will have to defend in the 12 seats it won in 2017. “What we don’t want,” says one senior Lib Dem MP, “is to end up in the situation we were in 2010, where we looked at the polling, got way ahead of ourselves, and forgot we had seats to defend as well as attack”. Others question whether some of the new targets are worth their time and resources at all. “I looked at that list and thought: Warrington North? Really? We haven’t even kept our deposit there since 2010,” says a target seat candidate.
As opponents of the decision to back the revocation of Article 50 without a referendum discovered yesterday, however, the leadership has already resolved to take this strategic gamble.