When Jo Swinson launched the Liberal Democrat manifesto last night, the biggest cheer from the crowd came not when she was described as the party’s candidate to be prime minister, but when she told party activists that only they can prevent Boris Johnson from winning a parliamentary majority.
Yesterday evening, her deputy and the party’s finance spokesperson Ed Davey told ITV’s political editor Robert Peston that the most likely outcome of the election is a minority government led by Boris Johnson, in which the Liberal Democrats vote “issue by issue” and seek to stop Brexit via backbench action.
But perhaps the most telling example of the party’s new approach wasn’t in what its big beasts said, but in the choice of warm-up band for Jo Swinson: Daisy Cooper, the party’s candidate in St Albans – a seat that the Liberal Democrats believe they are near certain to win. But that Hertfordshire constituency is right on the foothills of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat battleground, and is very far from the level of ambition needed to establish the Liberal Democrats as a genuine third force.
So what’s up? Swinson kicked off her campaign talking about her plan to become prime minister because the voters she needs to win, and the seats the party needs to take to stop Brexit, are opposed to both Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn. The most effective way to square the circle was to say: well, don’t worry, we’re going to realign politics and circumvent the problem. But the success of both Corbyn and Johnson in squeezing the Liberal Democrats out of the story means that the party is being squeezed in the polls. (Although the party’s prospects in its target seats are looking better than the polls suggest, with several big-name Conservatives worried that they might not make it back even if Johnson wins his majority.) It’s no longer plausible, to the extent that it ever was, for the Liberal Democrats to reassure anti-Corbyn Remainers that they are voting for Swinson to be prime minister.
So there’s a new approach: sell voters in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat battleground on the idea that the election has been won and lost – that they don’t need to worry about who ends up in Downing Street because that issue will be settled in the Conservative-Labour battleground, and indeed has been settled in Johnson’s favour. The only question that voters in the likes of Winchester, Wokingham and St Albans are settling is: how powerful will that Johnson government be?
Will it work? It leaves the Liberal Democrats in need of one of two things from Labour’s manifesto launch later today: either a decisive failure that prosecutes their argument that the voters of Winchester and elsewhere need not fear a Corbyn government, or a stunning success that eradicates that fear entirely.