The Lib Dem fightback is looking more like a mirage

Its losses in the local elections show that it might end up with fewer Westminster seats than it started out with next month

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So much for the real opposition. That the high point of the Liberal Democrats’ local election night may well have been the moment Northumberland county councillor Lesley Rickerby denied the Tories an overall majority after drawing straws for her seat is a mark of just how disappointing their showing was.

However manfully Tim Farron tries to spin this one – and however appalling Labour’s performance – losing 34 council seats when projections suggested wins of between 100 and 125 means his party simply cannot make significant gains come 8 June 2017.

Though much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, the born-again Lib Dems are now, remarkably, in a worse position than they were last time they fought these seats (in 2013, when they suffered a net loss of 134). It’s true, as Farron wasted no time in pointing out, that the Lib Dems managed to increase its share of the vote by seven points to 18 per cent. But there is little else to take heart from.

Not only has the party drastically undershot expectations, but they have confirmed a theory some pessimistic  Lib Dem insiders have long feared to be true: that a string of jammy by-election victories at local and national level won’t translate into anything close to meaningful progress at the general election.

That the party has fallen back by five seats in the Welsh capital, where it hopes to regain Cardiff Central next month, should sound alarm bells. The same is true of its abject performance in the West Country: far from making gains, it lost seats in Somerset which it held even in 2013, the dog days of coalition. It made no gains in Cheltenham, which broke decisively for Remain last June and was a relatively safe Lib Dem seat between 1992 and 2015.

Having shed 1,924 councillors since 2010, the only way was up – so to posting a net loss now, weeks away from a general election ostensibly defined by the issue the Lib Dems have made their own, is inauspicious to say the least. Its disappointing third-place finishes in the West of England and Liverpool City Region mayoralties (where Carl Cashman, who had expected to come a strong second, won just 7 per cent of the vote) also augur terribly. Both may have been transfer-friendly, but given their inability to attract a decent enough share of first preferences, we’ll never know – and under first past the post, who cares anyway?

As Stephen wrote last month, the party needed to prove it could again produce the electoral goods it did so consistently pre their 2015 wipeout if it was to make big gains next month. It hasn’t. Its increased vote share is indicative less of a renewed ability to challenge for and win Westminster seats than it is a sign of lost toxicity. The Lib Dems are once again a safe and attractive repository for protest votes. But whatever their election posters say, they aren’t winning here – at least, not yet.

Much more likely is that, as a revanchist and not insurgent force, the Lib Dems will replicate its performance in November’s Witney by-election across the country: returning to its rightful place as the main challenger to the Tories in affluent seats that backed remain. And while Farron insists the party are on course to double the size of their parliamentary cohort, Ukip’s collapse – and the Tory tsunami it has fuelled – reflect an altogether less comfortable truth. The Lib Dems stand a very real chance of coming out of this election with fewer seats than they entered it. Wallington and Carshalton, Southport and Richmond Park are among seats where the incumbents’ slim majorities would quickly disappear if only a minority of 2015 Ukippers returned to the Tories.  Today’s evidence suggests a majority will do so, and that Farron will have a harder time winning other seats back than first anticipated.

Herein, arguably, lies the folly of the Lib Dems hitching their wagon so tightly to the 48 per cent – a strategy which one Lib Dem MP told me would prove a short-sighted one around the time of the Richmond Park by-election. Whatever you think about people being on the right or wrong side of history here, it’s a strategy that could not only prove repellent to footloose Brexiters, but one that’s been shown by recent polling to have attracted nowhere near as many Tory Remainers as first hoped (and one that's assuming, wrongly, that a critical mass of people still care).

There's no doubt that the Lib Dems are on the road to some sort of recovery. But today's results have proven they have a long, long way to go yet - and that their destination might not be the one they're imagining. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.