The Liberal Democrats are taking a risk they don't need over Article 50

The strategy is high risk, low reward.


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The Liberal Democrats have officially made it their party policy to revoke Article 50 if they win a majority at the next election, in a move that they hope will cement their position as “the strongest party of remain”.

Following a robust debate at their party conference, where all MPs, MEPs, councillors and members have an equal vote on what becomes party policy, the move received the support of what looked like 90 per cent of delegates.

But it is a huge risk. The party is unlikely to win a majority in a general election and knows it, instead adopting this move to bolster their pitch to Remainers in their target seats. As one senior party figure explains, when you see the possibility of a crystal-clear campaign message, you should seize it with both hands. But unfortunately, this may look distinctly unclear to the public down the line. It may be obvious to the Liberal Democrats that revoke is a pipe dream and the realistic probability is a second referendum in coalition, but it isn’t obvious to the public, who would see it as a case of voting for one thing and getting another, a reputation that the Lib Dems are still trying to shake off from the coalition years.

It seems, moreover, to be a gamble the Liberal Democrats didn’t need to take. They have already comfortably established themselves as the party of Remain: those who wanted to revoke had nowhere to go but the Liberal Democrats anyway, while those who back Remain but see revoke as a step too far without a referendum may well be alienated.

At the heart of this, there is a debate about whether a majority in a general election is enough of a mandate to overturn the result of a referendum: after all, that is a result that could be achieved on only 35 per cent of the public vote. The party stresses that their preferred route remains a second referendum, but that a general election is more likely to be first, and will be treated as a de facto referendum, giving them a mandate to revoke if they were to gain a majority. Some members argued today that if Boris Johnson is going to interpret a majority as a mandate for No Deal, they are entitled to adopt the counter position.

But there remains unease about selling that on the doorsteps, and about the inevitable (and, also, enviably simple) attack line from the Conservatives: that the Liberal Democrats will overturn the will of the people, that they are “undemocratic”. One delegate passionately argued this morning that “only the public in a confirmatory vote have the authority to revoke the public’s prior decision.”

Fundamentally, this moves the party into a more polarising position that it had no need to adopt. One of the most memorable interventions in this morning’s debate was from a Niall Mahon, a member and councillor from Sunderland, who asked: “Who is this targeting? Do we really need to be piling on more and more remain votes in London constituencies? What are we offering to the North?” Andrew George, the former MP and parliamentary candidate for St Ives  bemoaned a position that failed to inspire or convert: “Nothing in this motion helps us persuade those whose minds are not completely closed.”

The Liberal Democrats are banking on the advantage of a clear message and a polarised public. But this is a risk they didn’t need to take.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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