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  1. Election 2024
15 September 2019

A landslide for revoke shows the Lib Dem debate on Brexit is over

Those who are sceptical of the party's new policy of cancelling Brexit without a referendum are now massively outnumbered internally.

By Patrick Maguire

Liberal Democrat members have voted resoundingly in favour of revoking Article 50 should Jo Swinson win a majority at the next election, in a sign of just how profoundly the dynamics of party’s internal debate on Europe has changed since the EU referendum.

No more than one in 20 members in the conference hall voted against the party leadership’s motion, whose overwhelming endorsement by the grassroots makes the Lib Dems are the first major party to back the cancellation of Brexit without another referendum. 

The landslide reflects a profound internal shift. When Tim Farron first proposed the party advocate for a second referendum in 2016, he was met by considerable internal resistance – not least by Vince Cable, who went as far as to criticise him public.

Three years and some 65,000 new members later, however, the Lib Dem parliamentary party and its grassroots are as close to unanimous on the issue as they could be. That is both a vindication of Farron’s decision to pitch his battered party as unequivocally pro-Remain earlier than many of his colleagues thought was wise, and a testament to the electoral dividends that decision has paid. The Lib Dems are, as speaker after speaker in this morning’s debate pointed out, Britain’s foremost party of Remain – and nowhere is that clearer than at its grassroots.

But is everybody happy? It is worth noting that all of the speeches against the proposal – which, by and large, were markedly better than those in favour – came from activists whose involvement with the party long predates 2016, those who feared such an unambiguous message would sit uneasily with voters in their Brexit-backing patches, and people who fell into both categories. 

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Take Simon Hughes, the party’s former president, deputy leader and, for 32 years, MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark. In a forensic response, he argued that only a referendum could legitimately overturn the mandate of another referendum, and he worried aloud that the Lib Dems might well be portrayed as extremists by their rivals. 

An even punchier intervention came from Niall Hodson, a councillor from Sunderland – where local Lib Dems have enjoyed notable success not because of their Brexit stance, but because of their doughty opposition to an unpopular Labour council – who argued that the policy could jeopardise the progress the party had made in constituencies like his at the expense of wasted votes piling up in supermajorities in Remain cities. Ditto Andrew George, the former MP (and now parliamentary candidate) for St Ives in Cornwall. 

It all made for a striking contrast with speeches like Chuka Umunna’s, which spoke of the policy not just as desirable, but necessary. It might well be that people like Umunna and Cable, who warned members to stop their “pious finger-pointing” over the politics of defectors, are wrong. Hughes, Hodson and others made anxious by the leadership’s strategic gamble on Remain might well be right. But the overwhelming endorsement it has received from members – and, for that matter, the fact that Umunna, Sam Gyimah and Luciana Berger are even here in Bournemouth this weekend – underlines that the party’s internal debate has already been won.

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