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17 September 2019

The polarised Brexit election craved by the Lib Dems is only getting more likely

The Liberal Democrats have taken a big gamble towards Remain, but they can at least be heartened by the state of play at the other pole of the Brexit debate.

By Patrick Maguire

What should we expect to hear in Jo Swinson’s first leader’s speech to the Liberal Democrat Conference? In short, that she doesn’t like Brexit, that she doesn’t Boris Johnson, that she doesn’t like Jeremy Corbyn, that she doesn’t like Nigel Farage, that she doesn’t like the SNP, and that she wants to be the prime minister.

That’s the overriding theme of the extracts trailed ahead of her star turn in Bournemouth this afternoon. And no wonder; Swinson really doesn’t like any of those things – not least Corbyn, who she will effectively blame for Brexit this afternoon – and neither do the voters in the predominantly Conservative seats that her party will have designs on come a general election.

Everything the Lib Dems have done over these past few days, not least the hardening of their Brexit policy to revoking Article 50 without a referendum should they win a majority, stems from their electoral mission to become the home of disaffected Remain voters who hate those things, too.

As much as she and senior members of her party are saying it with a straight face, Swinson is of course unlikely to ever become prime minister, and there are plenty of people here in Bournemouth who feel she is taking a high-risk gamble on the party’s appeal, with little guarantee of any meaningful electoral reward. Those detractors may yet be right, but by the time they find out it will be much too late to change course.

But what will hearten the Lib Dem leadership is the state of play at the other pole of the Brexit debate. Much has and will be written about the significance of Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel’s decision to empty podium Boris Johnson yesterday, but what matters far more than how discourteous or deserved it might have been is the fact that it came after yet another meeting in which the UK presented no new proposals to break the deadlock over the Irish border. Though the DUP is readying itself for a compromise and a narrow path to an accord with Dublin and Brussels definitely exists, it is far from clear whether politics will allow Johnson to take it.

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This failure to even inch towards a deal is only added to the fact that Johnson and his ministers will spend the rest of this week almost at loggerheads with the judiciary in the Supreme Court, are this morning refusing to rule out proroguing parliament for a second time, and are still talking about finding a loophole in the legislation passed to avert a no-deal on the 31 October. It looks as though the sort of polarised Brexit election that the Lib Dems clearly crave is only getting more likely. Whether they can expect an electoral windfall is another question entirely.

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