Why a Lib Dem recovery is essential to defeating Boris Johnson’s destructive government

Keir Starmer’s best hope of becoming prime minister is for the Lib Dems to deny the Conservatives an outright majority. 

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Don’t tell them, but over the past three years I have been – for a while simultaneously – a member of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

I joined the Tories simply to vote against Boris Johnson in any leadership election. That plan did not work out too well. 

I joined Labour to vote for a sensible, electable successor to Jeremy Corbyn. That was more successful. 

I joined the Lib Dems because they alone were unequivocally right on what were, before Covid-19, the two biggest issues this country has faced this century – the Iraq war and Brexit.

For a while it looked as though the Lib Dems were going to reap their just reward. Barely a year ago they gained 15 MEPs and nearly 20 per cent of the vote in the European Parliament elections, as well as 704 councillors and 19 per cent of the vote in the 2019 local elections. They were attracting rebel MPs from both the Conservatives and Labour. They won the 2019 Brecon and Radnorshire by-election, seizing it from the Tories with a 14 per cent swing. The two main parties had been hijacked by zealots, and in their opposition to Brexit the Lib Dems had a uniquely potent wedge issue. What could possibly go wrong?

Almost everything, of course. The Lib Dems fell foul of their own hubris by agreeing to Johnson’s demand for an early general election, pledging to cancel Brexit without a second referendum, and presenting the young, inexperienced Jo Swinson as prime minister-apparent.

But their electoral rout last December was also due to a factor beyond their control – a polarisation of British politics that stopped disgruntled Tory moderates voting Lib Dem for fear of letting Corbyn into Downing Street, and disgruntled Labour moderates from voting Lib Dem for fear of another rabidly ideological Tory government. The Lib Dems actually lost seats, nine of them, including that of Swinson herself (to the SNP), after a campaign that an internal review called “a high-speed car crash”.

Since then, the Lib Dems have been irrelevant at national level. They have lost their unique electoral selling point – their opposition to Brexit. They have been leaderless and largely voiceless during the coronavirus crisis. With just 11 MPs, they have no sway at Westminster, where Johnson enjoys a majority of 80, and most people would struggle to name a single member of their shrivelled parliamentary party. Moreover Keir Starmer, Labour’s new leader, is manoeuvring his party back on to their centrist turf.

That is why the party’s leadership election has been greeted with such indifference since it finally and very belatedly got under way on 24 June. Layla Moran, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon since 2017, is challenging Ed Davey, the former cabinet minister who lost to Swinson last time round, for the honour of becoming the Lib Dems’ fifth leader in as many years. 

The general public will be about as interested in the outcome as it would be in the result of Scunthorpe United versus Crawley Town, but here’s the funny thing. The outcome does matter. It matters because, paradoxically, Starmer cannot hope to win power in 2024 without a Lib Dem revival.

To form a majority government after the next election Labour needs to win 124 additional seats. That is an almost impossible task now that the party has lost its traditional Scottish strongholds to the SNP – it has only one MP north of the border, down from 41 five years ago. (To win the required number of seats in England it would need to defeat Jacob Rees-Mogg in North East Somerset.) Nor could it begin to contemplate a governing coalition with the SNP, whose price would be another Scottish independence referendum. 

As one of Labour’s own post-election reviews conceded last month, the party has “a mountain to climb to get back into power in the next five years”. That means Starmer’s best hope of becoming prime minister is if the Lib Dems can deny the Conservatives an outright majority by winning seats in areas such as the south-west, where they are relatively strong and Labour is weak. 

That is not entirely far-fetched. There are years to go, of course, but Johnson has grossly mismanaged the coronavirus pandemic, the economy is in a desperate state and the dire consequences of the Tories’ hardline Brexit have yet to become fully apparent. 

The Lib Dems, with roughly 2,500 councillors, remain a force at grass-roots level. Although they won only 11 seats last December, they came second to the Tories in 80 constituencies and secured 3.7 million votes. Starmer’s ascent to the Labour leadership could actually help them because centrists and moderate Tories who cannot stomach Johnson can now vote Lib Dem without fear of letting Corbyn into power.

So I, for one, will be following the Lib Dems’ leadership election with some interest. And I shall vote – unless barred for holding multiple party memberships – for the candidate I deem most likely to collaborate, formally or informally, tacitly or implicitly, with Starmer’s Labour. That is because nothing now matters as much to me as removing Johnson’s uniquely destructive, divisive and cynical government.

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times and a New Statesman magazine contributing writer and online columnist.

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