Liberal Democrat unease with Philip Lee spills out into the open

Concern about their new MP comes in two directions.

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Liberal Democrat unease over the arrival of Philip Lee, a defector, spilled out into the open during a debate on a platform of measures to move towards equal marriage at the the party's conference on Saturday.

Party activists were voting on a swathe of new policies that would see humanist marriages become legally recognised in England and Wales and end the spousal veto on people seeking gender recognition, among other proposals to move towards “full” marriage equality.

These are issues are essentially non-controversial within the Liberal Democrat party, but the speeches in favour became a lightning rod for opposition within the party to the admittance of Lee, who abstained on the same-sex marriage vote.

Three senior members of the Liberal Democrats’ LGBT wing quit the party, and Julian Huppert, the former MP for Cambridge, and Lynne Featherstone, the Liberal Democrat peer and former MP who moved the same-sex marriage legislation through the House of Commons, both used their speeches to namecheck and praise the departed.

In a speech that received loud applause from the floor, Alex Wilcock, a Liberal Democrat activist, spoke about the 20 years he had to wait to marry his partner, and asked Lee if his marriage had a similarly “long engagement”. It was Wilcock’s speech that also got to the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ unease over Lee’s admission: the party’s defence and toleration of their then-leader, Tim Farron, and his record on equal rights, and the price it paid for that at the 2017 election.

Philip Lee is not the first Liberal Democrat MP to have gone missing during the same-sex marriage vote, and although the party has had a long history of liberal policies and votes on this issue, it has had a number of MPs whose commitment to that party of the Liberal Democrat tradition has been less strong.

But Lee is the first Liberal Democrat MP to have abstained on equal marriage since the 2017 disaster. Activists and some MPs are therefore doubly concerned: firstly because they fear that they are giving away something of themselves, and secondly because they fear they will pay an electoral price.

It puts a great deal of pressure on the Bracknell MP, who is expected to address his new party this week in a bid to reassure members that their fears about his politics are ill-founded.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.