Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
14 September 2019

Liberal Democrat unease with Philip Lee spills out into the open

Concern about their new MP comes in two directions.

By Stephen Bush

Liberal Democrat unease over the arrival of Philip Lee, a defector, spilled out into the open during a debate on a platform of measures to move towards equal marriage at the the party’s conference on Saturday.

Party activists were voting on a swathe of new policies that would see humanist marriages become legally recognised in England and Wales and end the spousal veto on people seeking gender recognition, among other proposals to move towards “full” marriage equality.

These are issues are essentially non-controversial within the Liberal Democrat party, but the speeches in favour became a lightning rod for opposition within the party to the admittance of Lee, who abstained on the same-sex marriage vote.

Three senior members of the Liberal Democrats’ LGBT wing quit the party, and Julian Huppert, the former MP for Cambridge, and Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat peer and former MP who moved the same-sex marriage legislation through the House of Commons, both used their speeches to namecheck and praise the departed.

In a speech that received loud applause from the floor, Alex Wilcock, a Liberal Democrat activist, spoke about the 20 years he had to wait to marry his partner, and asked Lee if his marriage had a similarly “long engagement”. It was Wilcock’s speech that also got to the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ unease over Lee’s admission: the party’s defence and toleration of their then-leader, Tim Farron, and his record on equal rights, and the price it paid for that at the 2017 election.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday - from the New Statesman. The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Philip Lee is not the first Liberal Democrat MP to have gone missing during the same-sex marriage vote, and although the party has had a long history of liberal policies and votes on this issue, it has had a number of MPs whose commitment to that party of the Liberal Democrat tradition has been less strong.

Content from our partners
What is the point of inheritance tax?
How to win the next election? It's the data, stupid
Businesses must unlock the regional growth agenda

But Lee is the first Liberal Democrat MP to have abstained on equal marriage since the 2017 disaster. Activists and some MPs are therefore doubly concerned: firstly because they fear that they are giving away something of themselves, and secondly because they fear they will pay an electoral price.

It puts a great deal of pressure on the Bracknell MP, who is expected to address his new party this week in a bid to reassure members that their fears about his politics are ill-founded.