The Liberal Democrats want to be the party of David Gauke, not the party of Tim Walker

Jo Swinson’s strategic gamble is that there is more to be gained from courting former Conservatives than Labour sympathisers.

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What’s more important to the Liberal Democrats: the support of Tim Walker, the New European’s diary columnist, who has stepped down as the party’s candidate in Canterbury, urging voters in that constituency to vote instead for Labour’s Rosie Duffield? Or the support of David Gauke, the former Conservative cabinet minister, who has announced he will run as an independent in his South West Hertfordshire seat, and has urged moderate Conservatives across the country to vote for the Liberal Democrats?

Liberal Democrat success in the local and European elections this year rested on both: the intensely engaged forces of pro-Europeanism and disgruntled Conservatives both voted Liberal Democrat. But one reason why the United Kingdom’s third party tends to do better in local elections than general elections is that, in local elections, the question of who you want in Downing Street is not in play. In a general election, the Liberal Democrat choice of whether they want to be a party of “Remain – by any means necessary” or a party of “Remain – but not with that guy” can’t be fudged.

As far as Jo Swinson is concerned – and this has been true throughout her leadership – the decision requires no fudging. Her strategic gamble is that there is more to be gained by courting Gauke than courting Walker: that Jeremy Corbyn’s personal toxicity to Conservative voters is far more damaging than the irritation of some parts of the United Kingdom’s pro-European movement. Their argument is simple: that the only way to prevent Brexit is for the Liberal Democrats to gain seats from the Conservatives at a greater rate than the Conservatives take seats from Labour. There is no decision to be made between being a party of “Remain – by any means necessary” and “Remain – but not with that guy”, because to touch Jeremy Corbyn is to destroy the Liberal Democrats’ hopes of winning affluent pro-Remain constituencies.

Are they right? Well, who knows? Remember, it’s not just about how many Liberal Democrat voters are like Walker and how many Liberal Democrats are like Gauke: it’s also about where the Walkers live and where the Gaukes live. It doesn’t matter if the majority of people who voted Liberal Democrat in the 2019 European election are closer to Walker if they live in seats the Liberal Democrats have no realistic prospect of winning. As unjust as it is, our outdated electoral system means that the vote of a Gauke in St Ives or Cities of London & Westminster is worth more than the vote of a Walker in Hackney South or East Surrey.  

But whether they are right about the path ahead or not, the Liberal Democrats have made a firm decision, and they made it some time ago. Under Swinson they will always be a party of Gauke not a party of Walker – and the effectiveness of that strategy will ultimately decide whether or not Brexit is stopped or not.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.