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13 June 2012updated 07 Jun 2021 4:50pm

The Liberal Democrats’ rise in the polls leaves both the Tories and Labour in a mess over Brexit

By Stephen Bush

The race to be the United Kingdom’s next prime minister has another entrant: Jo Swinson has officially kicked off her campaign to lead the Liberal Democrats. Elsewhere, Mark Harper, David Cameron’s last chief whip, has announced that he will join the race to be leader of the Conservative Party.

The Liberal Democrats are feeling chipper after a sensational YouGov poll for the Times puts them top, on 24 per cent, with the Brexit Party in second place. It is, as ever, just one poll, and the usual health warnings apply.

There are reasons, too, to think it may well be real, but ephemeral. The perpetual problem for the smaller parties is getting enough coverage. Yet bookending the month with record-breaking electoral triumphs, their sweary anti-Brexit slogan, a Labour row about whether Alastair Campbell should be allowed to stay in the party having declared that he cast a Liberal vote in the Euros, and that the two politicians who are, in my view, their best communicators are running about on TV and radio talking about their leadership campaigns means that the last month and a bit has gone pretty well for the Liberal Democrats in that regard.

A fourth-place finish and a lost deposit in Peterborough, which is about as inhospitable a by-election for the Liberal Democrats as you can get, will probably throw the narrative-o-mobile into sharp, and likely exaggerated reverse.

But in the here and now, it adds to the feel-good factor around the two parties. It means that when Swinson talks today about how this is a moment in which a new liberal movement is on the up and she is the person to lead it, she sounds serious and not like yet another Liberal Democrat leadership hopeful talking big. It means that when Ed Davey talks about his political mission being to “decarbonise capitalism” the immediate response isn’t to wonder whether he would be better off sticking with pointing at potholes. 

There are reasons to worry for both major parties, of course. One of the many, many things that makes our electoral system unfit for purpose is that it suppresses the political wishes of the British electorate up until the point that it wildly exaggerates them. Just look at the SNP: first-past-the-post grossly underrepresented them for 60 years, and has grossly overrepresented them for three.

For both parties, it leaves them in a real mess as far as Brexit is concerned. You can’t out-Brexit the Brexit Party because unlike the big two, its Brexit never actually has to be delivered: it can only be betrayed, watered down or bungled by the establishment. Any move towards the Brexit Party only further aggravates the movement of disgruntled Remainers towards the Liberal Democrats (and the Greens, who are up to eight per cent in the same poll).

What would be giving me particular conniptions were I Labour is that the message of the polls, and the local and EU elections, is that if you Leave and vote for the Brexit Party you’ll end up with a Labour-led pro-Remain coalition that stops Brexit: a pretty good reason to hold your nose and vote Tory. But the other message of the polls, and the local and EU elections, is that if you vote for one of the pro-Remain parties you’ll still get shot of the Conservatives – and you might get rid of Brexit to boot. I know which squeeze message I’d rather have going into the next election.

For that reason, as crazy as it sounds, it might be that the Conservatives are better served in the long-term by a Labour victory in Peterborough – while Labour might have cause to regret it if the voters on 6 June provide another indicator to Remain voters that they can have their cake and eat it too.

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