Tim Farron did not expect his election campaign to turn so quickly into a rearguard action. Last month, still bullish despite a disappointing local election night, he told activists in St Albans – a key target where the Tories are defending a 12,000 majority – that he would double the size of the Liberal Democrats’ parliamentary party.
Now polls suggest they will be lucky to avoid a net loss of seats. That, if not plain humiliating, would be hugely disappointing. They have not been above 11 per cent in a poll since late April, and currently hover at around eight.
The significance of that second number is enormous. The Lib Dems under Nick Clegg – then singularly unpopular and bruised by a series of failed putsches – managed a 7.9 per cent vote share in 2015. Farron’s status as an anti-coalition cleanskin untainted by ministerial office was his unique selling point in the leadership fight with Norman Lamb, a former health minister.
Should Farron fail to post a marked improvement on Clegg’s showing, then the wisdom of his hard remain strategy – and viability of his entire leadership – could come in for even harsher questioning.
It is easy to criticise the Lib Dems’ anti-Brexit rebrand, but the inopportune timing of the election has not helped their cause. Britain has yet to leave the EU and, to borrow a line from then home secretary Theresa May, the sky has not fallen in. There is not yet any deal, let alone a bad one, for the party and electorate to rail against. Much of their messaging on the perils of a hard Brexit is woolly as a result. Seats lost to the Tories in the West Country aren’t exactly crying out for an inverse Ukip now, with the effects of our decision to leave still more or less imperceptible.
But though the election has come far too early for substantial Brexit anger to play that big a role – and will almost certainly prove disappointing – its timing may well have saved the Lib Dems in the long run.
Most crucially, the election will be fought under the existing set of parliamentary boundaries. The new set are particularly unkind to the Lib Dems, who would have returned just five MPs and faced wipeout in the north of England had they been in place in 2015. Both Leeds North West and Nick Clegg’s seat of Sheffield Hallam would have fallen to Labour, with the Tories taking Southport.
While the headline figures are already bleak, the new boundaries in seats that the Lib Dems would have notionally held on to are, on current political evidence, pretty unforgiving. Carshalton and Wallington – where Tom Brake is defending a majority of just 1,510 and could well be sunk by the flight of its 5,341 Ukip voters to the Tories – would take on wards from Conservative-held Sutton and Cheam. North Norfolk would take on wards from Tory-held Broadland.
Were the Lib Dems to fight these seats under new boundaries, they may well have been sunk for good. But likely victories from popular incumbents this time around will lock in a small but nonetheless reasonably healthy parliamentary presence til 2022 – a much better juncture for judging Brexit than now. And with the exception of 68-year-old John Pugh in Southport, May’s decision to call an early election has bounced MPs who otherwise might have stood down in 2020 – Clegg chief among them – into staying on. Better slender gains now than terminal losses come 2020.
The early timing has also encourage old, popular hands such as Ed Davey, Jo Swinson, Vince Cable and Simon Hughes to stand again. While the much-vaunted incumbency factor did not save all that many Lib Dem MPs in 2015, it could belatedly let them back in. Narrow 2015 defeats are still fresh in the memory and the defeated candidates are still up for – and largely free enough – for a fight. By 2020, age and professional commitments would have meant the golden generation the Lib Dems lost in 2015 would have stayed lost.
With an inexperienced team fighting on the most unforgiving electoral terms, the fightback may well have been doomed. But locking in what might well turn out to be a seasoned unit of well-known MPs until 2022 – however small that team may be – could well offer the Lib Dems the perfect base to take the fight against an unsatisfying Brexit deal to the public (and, if they feel needs must, replace Farron).
In Scotland, there is referendum anger to exploit. While the EU referendum might not have realigned English politics, the same cannot be said for the constitutional question north of the border. Corralling the pro-UK vote could well win the Lib Dems Dunbartonshire East and Edinburgh West, seats it held before 2015 and came a close second in that year. Other activists are quietly hopeful of victory in Charles Kennedy’s old seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. Here the two boldest political calls of the year – Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to push for a second independence referendum and May’s early election – could combine to insulate the Lib Dem ranks from the collapse of the Ukip vote in England.
Of course, the likelihood is that whatever position the Lib Dems occupy on the morning of June 9 will be equally – if not more – precarious than the one they held at the end of the last parliament. Should Scotland leave the UK, gains north of the border will count for naught. Maybe – just maybe – Downing Street will strike a Brexit deal that does not lead to economic slump and electoral recriminations.
But those are big ifs. Even if the party makes only a handful of gains, the Prime Minister’s decision to call an early election may well hand the Lib Dems a position much better than it looks.