Attendees at Liberal Democrat conference this week took a big interest in the Rutherglen and West Hamilton by-election coming up in Scotland on 5 October. Not so much to see whether their candidate succeeds but to witness the SNP lose. They hope the by-election will be the first crack in the SNP’s hegemony over Scotland, clearing space for the Lib Dems to reclaim the position as the third-largest party in the House of Commons. Forget winning 30 or 35 seats – for some Lib Dems, this is the true prize.
This isn’t vanity and Westminster one-upmanship. Reclaiming the third spot bestows serious benefits. The top prize is a guaranteed two questions for the Lib Dem leader at Prime Minister’s Questions. The SNP has been the third-largest party since the 2015 general election, when it won 58 seats and Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems collapsed. Stephen Flynn, the SNP’s Westminster leader, uses his pulpit to lambast both the Tories and Labour in full view of the nation’s press. It gives him credibility, an opportunity for newspaper coverage and a chance to shape the political conversation. Once journalists have spoken about the back and forth between the Prime Minister and the Labour leader, as well as Flynn’s intervention, there is little time or appetite to cover Ed Davey’s question. And even then, he only gets one every five weeks.
PMQs is only the most obvious benefit. Politics is about momentum. The Lib Dems suffer from obscurity; very few people even know who Davey is. The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire asked the Lib Dem leader at the weekend why no one knew what he stands for. What she didn’t say was that this is partly the media’s fault. In meetings where broadcasters discuss balance and impartiality, the Lib Dems, rather than the SNP, would suddenly be the obvious choice to fill the third seat on a politics programme. If they became the third-largest party, with a story of election success behind them, the broadcasters and the papers might start giving them more coverage.
One senior Lib Dem source noted that they don’t need to excel in Scotland to overtake the SNP. The Lib Dems are mainly focused on taking Tory-held seats in England, particularly in the Home Counties and the south-west. Labour is the primary challenger north of the border. Its success in Scotland could be key to securing itself a majority. It could also be the reason the Lib Dems become the third-largest party once again.