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24 December 2020

It’s not Keir Starmer who has a tricky dilemma over Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal

The Labour leader’s strategic options are limited, but his Liberal Democrat counterpart has a more tricky choice.

By Stephen Bush

Keir Starmer will whip Labour MPs to support the government’s Brexit deal, saying that the deal, while thin, is preferable to a no-deal Brexit and that he would seek to build on it in office. (That is a coded way of saying: anything about it that’s popular we’ll put in our manifesto.)

The choice for Starmer is pretty open and shut: to vote against the deal is to risk a no-deal Brexit if enough committed advocates for no deal opt to vote with him, so he can’t do that. The brute political calculation is also simple: it’s not in Labour’s interests to go into the next election having voted against Brexit at every stage of Starmer’s leadership. Given that Labour under his leadership have already abstained on a number of issues – and whatever one thinks about the wisdom of some or all of those abstentions, those votes can’t be uncast  now – it would be highly risky to do yet another, as the party risks looking ridiculous.

So the leadership doesn’t really have any available options other than to vote for the deal, and as far as “sending a signal” to voters is concerned, because on the whole political journalists, particularly the BBC, prefer to cover conflict over policy, a few resignations by shadow ministers will help.

The more interesting question is: what should the Liberal Democrats do? Thanks to Tim Farron’s brave but fiercely contested decision to come out against Brexit the party has acquired something it has long cherished but never managed to achieve: a reliable core vote that aligns with the party on a broad swathe of values – the average Liberal Democrat voter is more ideologically coherent now than it ever was in the 1990s and 2000s. That’s the dream for any third party, because you are best-placed to secure effective concessions in a coalition government or in a hung parliament if your priorities and that of your voters are well-aligned.

The problem is the dream is also a nightmare: the party’s new coalition has not proved to be very effective at winning seats: they have nearly half as many MPs in 1992 with roughly the same amount of votes. The party struggled in target seats that voted to Leave in 2019, losing Carshalton and Wallington, North Norfolk and Eastbourne, and failing to win St Ives and Brecon and Radnorshire. It may continue to do so – and its new coalition may mean that the party struggles to gain votes in an electorally lucrative way.

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So the party’s new leader, Ed Davey has a choice: the Lib Dems can bet that their future lies in being more competitive in affluent parts of outer London and the south-east, in some cases where they had never held parliamentary seats but where they did well in local and European elections in the last parliament and in some cases came very close to winning. Or they can decide that their future lies in the seats they held during the 1990s and 2000s: which, considering that those seats were very heavily Leave might mean rejecting the approach of Farron and aping that of Starmer.