Election notebook #2: The article on the Lib Dems’ EU strategy I didn’t write. Until now

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2017

A couple of weeks’ back, Mark Pack asked me if I’d write a piece for the next issue of his Lib Dem Newswire (required reading, btw). “Perhaps something on ‘what the Lib Dems are currently getting wrong’?” he suggested, knowing I have my reservations about the party’s ultra-Remain stance. I demurred a bit, I’ll explain why below, and in any case it’s been rather taken over by this week’s events. So here’s more or less what I would (probably) have written…

I don’t think Tim Farron has put a foot wrong as Lib Dem leader since at least 23 June, despite the repeated sneers of SW1-fixated journos who think gravitas = smooth, middle-class Oxbridge clone. (For what it’s worth, I positively drip gravitas.)

His instinctual response to Brexit — that passionate, rejectionist speech delivered the morning after at the same time as Jeremy Corbyn was demanding the Prime Minister immediately trigger Article 50 — has rescued the Lib Dems from seeming oblivion, given the party new-found purpose. And, by the by, delivered thousands of new members inspired by his leadership. Meanwhile, his one-time rival for the job, Norman Lamb, abstained on the A50 vote; an understandable decision for an MP representing a 59% Leave constituency, but imagine how disastrous it would have been for the party if he’d done that as leader.

Tim Farron’s decision wasn’t just emotionally intelligent. It is also the right choice politically and tactically. Politically because it is absolutely right that the 48% who voted Remain (or whatever substantial minority they now are) are represented in parliament. The risible mess that is Corbyn’s Labour party can’t do it, so it’s a good job the Lib Dems are there, punching well above the weight of their nine MPs. Especially as Theresa May appears determined to fight this election refusing to provide any detail about what she considers a good Brexit deal to be. And tactically because it has given the party a USP, a reason for being, at a time when it risked drifting into decades’ worth of happy irrelevance urging fanciful radicalism and constitutional utopianism.

So, to Mark Pack’s point, I don’t actually think the Lib Dems have got the strategy wrong currently. I think they’ve got it bang on. And yet…

And yet, I also can’t but help asking myself two hypothetical questions:

1) What if we were in government right now, dealing with the aftermath of the Brexit referendum?

What would the party being doing differently? I suppose we’d be aiming for some form of EEA+ outcome, a Swiss/Norway kinda deal which retains our membership of the single market while allowing some form of immigration controls. Well, it’s possible — though I’m not sure it’ll help answer the electorate’s concerns about loss of sovereignty or high immigration, however mis-judged they are. And it’s what I assumed Theresa May would go for when she became PM. But, as I wrote here, I don’t find her decision to opt for a hard Brexit that surprising:

Of course I think it’s the wrong choice. And yes, I think Vote Leave was deliberately disingenuous in the referendum campaign in eliding single market membership/access. It’s also quite possible that a referendum specifically on membership of the single market might have produced a different result. But we are where we are. I think it’s at the very least arguable that Theresa May’s decision to choose a swift exit may prove less economically harmful than protracted fudge-and-mudge. It is, it’s true, a huge risk. But that’s what the country voted for. To take a leap in the dark.

2) What if we are in government later? What will our policy be then?

I guess there will always be a market for ultra-Remain voters wanting to turn back the clock to 22 June. But the Lib Dems can’t be a mainstream political force by appealing only to A.C. Grayling. At some point, assuming Brexit does actually happen, we will have to accept it however much it pains us. And given the UK’s only way back into the EU will (probably) be accepting full membership, without the opt-outs and rebates and concessions our neighbours have conceded to keep us inside the tent, do we honestly think re-joining the EU is either a realistic or desirable goal?

It is conceivable our exit terms will be so appalling, and the damage they wreak so economically disastrous, that the country rises up to reject the deal (or no deal) Theresa May comes back with. However, while I think Brexit will be damaging (indeed, is already) I suspect it won’t be so bad that enough voters are going to be willing to admit they were sold a pup. Especially once the right-wing media points the finger of blame at those dastardly foreigners for refusing to give us all the perks of membership even after we’ve cancelled our subscription and set fire to the clubhouse.

So my discomfort with the current Lib Dem strategy is that it’s fully focused on disputing the referendum outcome, not on dealing with where we are now. However, I also accept that’s probably the most profitable electoral strategy, at least for the moment.

And as I remarked to Mark, that’s probably far too much of a hand-wringing conclusion to make a good article.