And we’re off! Wera Hobhouse has become the first candidate to officially kick off their candidacy for the Liberal Democrat leadership. She’s written an article for PoliticsHome, setting out her view of where the party went wrong in 2019.
It’s a preview of the debates that will dominate the leadership contest in the summer: to what extent should the party position itself on the centre or the centre-left? Should it apologise for its participation in coalition with the Conservatives? And should it now become a party that advocates for rejoining the European Union?
Hobhouse’s answers to those questions are clear: she believes that “the root problem” of the general election was that the party positioned itself as equidistant between the Conservatives and Labour, which harmed the centre-left as a whole electorally. She repudiates the coalition, saying it undermined the Lib Dems’ values and helped to legitimise what she describes as a nationalist and illiberal Tory party. And she thinks her party must continue to advocate for membership of the European Union.
Her problem is that while each of those three arguments individually has an audience within the Liberal Democrats, the audience for the three combined is small. A large number – by my eyes, a narrow majority – of the party thinks that the Liberal Democrats should position themselves on the liberal centre-left, not the liberal centre. A large number of party members also thinks that the party should repudiate the coalition, but this number is by no means as large as, or coterminous with, those who think the party should assert its identity as a centre-left force. And a minority, albeit a large and vocal one, believes the party should now be a Rejoin party.
None of those groups perfectly overlaps. Within the parliamentary party, they may, taken together, represent just one MP: Hobhouse herself. This may prevent her from reaching the contest proper – whatever you think of the merits of Hobhouse’s case, the prospect that they can, combined, win a majority among Liberal Democrat members looks slim.