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10 September 2019

Here’s why a Liberal Democrat government would revoke Article 50

The party thinks that a sharper position will benefit it electorally and get it out of a tricky bind. 

By Stephen Bush

A majority Liberal Democrat government would revoke Article 50: if, that is, party members opt to back a new policy proposed by their leader Jo Swinson at their annual conference in Bournemouth next week.

Why the change? In part, it’s because of a sense that the party’s interests lie in occupying as clear and as sharp an end of the Brexit pole as possible, and also because of a belief within the party that, in the highly unlikely event that the Liberal Democrats do win a parliamentary majority, no Brexit option they could negotiate would be a credible option anyway.

They have also observed Labour’s difficulties defending their position of negotiating a new Brexit deal and putting it to a referendum in which the Labour government’s position would be up for grabs, and decided, not unreasonably, to avoid having to do something similar.

Is it a good idea? Well, it depends. There’s an element here of making a virtue out of necessity: Liberal Democrat policy is set by the party membership, and it was clear from their leadership election and from talking to their activists as a matter of course that the rank-and-file is moving towards a revoke position anyway, and there’s a value in owning the decision rather than having it made for the leadership. It provides the Liberal Democrats with two things: that all important third-party commodity of being talked about, and an insurance policy should Labour move into a full-throated second referendum position. And, of course, it positions the party well should the next election really turn out to be a realigning election in which Leave-Remain becomes the new political dividing line.

In practice, I’m not sure how much it will change things. The attack line that the Conservatives will use on Leave voters in Conservative-Liberal Democrat battlegrounds is that the Liberal Democrats want to stop Brexit, while trying to retain Remain voters by talking up their tax cuts and their spending commitments. The line that the Liberal Democrats will use on Remain voters is that they want to stop Brexit, while majoring on their usual themes of local issues, like potholes and recycling, with Leave voters.

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I’m frankly unconvinced that people really believe that the Liberal Democrats are going to win a parliamentary majority, and am generally of the view that they judge the party’s platform accordingly. What really matters is that it intensifies the party’s identity as the “stop Brexit” party – which one way or another the party has already bet heavily on.  

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