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The Lib Dems and the SNP face a shared Brexit problem

Both assumed there would be a bigger swell of distaste about the referendum result.

By Stephen Bush

The World Cup has a third-placed play-off, in which the teams that lost the semi-finals go head-to-head for a bronze medal.

British politics had something similar last night: the play off of the the third places. In the yellow corner, Nicola Sturgeon, whose SNP are the third-largest party in terms of seats. In the, uh, also yellow – and at times orange – corner, Tim Farron, whose Liberal Democrats are the third-largest party in terms of votes, at least if the polls are right.

The subdued event speaks to one of the interesting quirks of this election: the failure of any of the smaller parties to make a splash across Britain. For the SNP, the reasons why are largely obvious: it’s very hard to go better than 56. The focus there is whether or not they can hold onto their big gains.

But for the Liberal Democrats, this ought to be a golden opportunity. A foregone conclusion – at least as far as the overwhelming majority of voters are concerned – with two party leaders who are, to put it politely, Marmite figures. And yet far from surging, the traditional third party could lose yet more seats. What’s gone wrong?

Although you can’t win an election only with the voters of diehard Remainers, they still make up around 22 per cent of the country, and they tend to be from demographics that vote in great numbers. Yet analysis for BritainThinks shows that the Liberal Democrats have succeeded in pulling over just 15 per cent of the diehard group and just 8 per cent of the “Oh well, better get on with it then” group.

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What both Sturgeon and Farron have in common is that they bet that there would be a bigger swell of distaste about the Brexit result than there were. In both cases, I think in part because their immediate response was distaste, and both have been struggling to finesse their election message ever since. The contest has also come too early for both – Brexit might work out fine, after all.

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For the SNP, whatever happens, they’ll be a big enough force that Sturgeon’s reaction may come to be more widespread than it is now. But for the Liberal Democrats, the early election might leave them significantly smaller – and leave Theresa May with a mandate for a far harder Brexit.