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18 April 2017

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron says early election “can stop hard Brexit“

Private Conservative polling found the party would lose most of the 27 gains they made from the Lib Dems in 2015. Is this Tim Farron's moment? 

By Julia Rampen

If any party has less-than-fond memories of a general election, it should be the Liberal Democrats. In 2015, after five years of attempting to mitigate the worst of Tory policies through the Coalition government, the Yellow Bird found itself unceremoniously dumped. 

But two years later, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron sounds cheery about the prospect of spending his May and June knocking on doors. After the Prime Minister Theresa May made the shock announcement of an early election, Farron has signalled his party will vote for an early election after describing it as a “chance to change the direction of our country”.

He said: “If you want to avoid a disastrous Hard Brexit. If you want to keep Britain in the single market. If you want a Britain that is open, tolerant and united, this is your chance.

“Only the Liberal Democrats can prevent a Conservative majority.”

Read more: Four thoughts on Theresa May’s general election decision

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Brexit has given the Lib Dems a new zeal. While Labour has floundered, Farron has reasserted his party’s liberal, pro-European credentials. At the party conference in September, he declared it was the only party with the potential “to stop the calamity of Brexit”. He has demanded a second referendum on the Brexit deal and the majority of MPs voted against the Article 50 Bill. 

This evangelical Europeanism may play well with the 48 per cent online, but when mixed with a distinctly British First Past the Post system, can it actually produce results?

In the short-term, yes. In Richmond, the Lib Dems beat the incumbent candidate Zac Goldsmith by attracting Remain voters. In by-elections in Brexit-voting Stoke and Copeland, the Lib Dems enjoyed impressive surges. Conservative MPs in Devon and Cornwall also feel under threat. As my colleague George reported earlier this month, private Conservative polling found the party would lose most of the 27 gains they made from the Lib Dems in 2015, including all those in south London, all those in Cornwall and most of those in Devon.

The Lib Dems’ optimism about a general election therefore seems well placed. But as Patrick writes, the current trajectory will put them back where they were before the disappointment of 2015. In that case, the next question is whether the Lib Dems have enough friends in Westminster to block a hard Brexit. 

In 2010, the outgoing Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown proposed a “rainbow coalition” (the Lib Dems decided the Conservatives would make a stronger proposition). But today Labour is divided on Brexit, and the Greens have one MP. With just the SNP for company, the Lib Dems may not be quite the troublemakers they would like to be. 

Read more: How Theresa May can call an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act