Last week, political pundits took great delight in writing off the Liberal Democrats. Jo Swinson’s Question Time performance was lambasted — although many Lib Dems were simply happy to have their leader on the TV. Most percentage polls showed the party’s support crashing to the low teens. “The Liberal Democrat vote is evaporating more quickly than a small puddle of water in the Kalahari desert,” wrote Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times.
Today Chuka Umunna pressed the reset button on the faltering campaign in Watford. Rather than present themselves as challengers for government, the Liberal Democrats are now admitting the likelihood that Boris Johnson will still be in No 10 come 13 December, and are selling themselves accordingly.
“Only we can take seats from the Tories in big numbers,” said Chuka Umunna, positioning his party as the final obstacle to a Conservative majority and a resultant hard Brexit. The new Liberal Democrat line of attack – equating Johnson to Trump – was borrowed from Labour but adapted for the ears of an internationally engaged audience. According to Umunna, Johnson is “part of the global network of authoritarian, populist, right-wing nationalists” that includes Orbán, Erdoğan, Putin, Modi and Bolsonaro as well as Trump. “Giving Johnson a majority would be a carte blanche to this type of politics in the UK,” he concluded.
This is a message designed for socially liberal Conservatives in well-heeled parts of southern England. Constituencies like St Albans, Cheltenham and Richmond Park have long been on the Lib Dem radar, but thus far the Conservative vote has proved remarkably stubborn. What has changed in recent weeks has been the weakness of Labour’s campaign. Now that the possibility of a Labour government appears to be ruled out, the Lib Dems hope that voters who are more terrified of Jeremy Corbyn than they are of a hard Brexit might feel courageous enough to put a cross next to a candidate with a yellow rosette.
Whether this strategy pans out as expected might not become clear until next week. Senior Lib Dems believe that the final ten days of the campaign will be crucial in prising these voters away from the Tories – a time when they expect Brexit to once again dominate the news agenda. And, despite the polling, there is quiet confidence that Liberal Democrat support is much more concentrated than in previous elections. In 1983, the Social Democratic Party took 14 per cent of the vote, but only won 11 seats. Were the Lib Dems to finish with a similar vote share on this occasion, as they are currently on course to do, it seems likely their returns would be much greater.
And there is another factor working in the Lib Dems’ favour. Tactical voting was in evidence earlier in the campaign in Lewes, and of all the parties, the Liberal Democrats seem likely to be the largest beneficiary of any co-ordinated attempts to unseat Tories.
The Lib Dems can take cheer from recent statistics. Datapraxis analysis of YouGov polls showed over the weekend that, although the Conservatives were odds on for a majority, the Lib Dems were very competitive in places such as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s seat of Esher and Walton – a 56 per cent Remain constituency where the Lib Dems finished almost 25,000 votes behind the Tories in 2017. Expect CCHQ to start aiming more of their fire at the Lib Dems in response.