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16 September 2019

What do the Lib Dems gain by pledging to revoke Article 50?

A minority of members fear that the party has already sent an unquestionable message to Remainers and has nothing to gain by repeating itself.

By Stephen Bush

The Liberal Democrats have voted to change their Brexit policy: moving from support for a second referendum to one in which they would simply revoke Article 50 without a public vote – provided, that is, that the party wins a parliamentary majority. 

Of course, in practice, while there is an outside chance that the Liberal Democrats will win a majority, it’s not particularly likely. What really matters is the signal that the party is trying to send. Jo Swinson’s big bet is that politics around the democratic world is rearranging itself on open vs closed lines, and the new Article 50 position is designed around loudly and proudly proclaiming that the Liberal Democrats are the natural home of the open.

Not everyone at Liberal Democrat conference thinks they’ve made the right decision, however. A minority fear that they are alienating Leave voters to no good end, that the party has already sent an explicit and unquestionable message to Remainers and they have nothing to gain by repeating themselves.

I’m inclined to think that the practical effect will be non-existent: the Liberal Democrats have already established themselves as the way to send a pro-Remain message. That will either transform their position – or their much-discussed revival will dissipate come election day.

What it means is that the party is betting heavily on the idea that Brexit will reshape British politics, but that’s been true since Tim Farron decided to stake his leadership on opposing the referendum result.

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That decision was greeted with horror even in parts of his party. Jo Swinson will hope that just as Farron’s gamble paid dividends in the local and European elections, her gambit will leave the party smiling come election time.

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