Paris Gourtsoyannis: Lib Dems go looking for lost voters

Sir Vince Cable and his party can't just wait for Brexit to go wrong and voters to regain their equilibrium, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis

Sir Vince Cable and his party must look beyond Brexit and offer a credible centrist message to attract voters.
Sir Vince Cable and his party must look beyond Brexit and offer a credible centrist message to attract voters.

It has been a commonly held belief for several years that the centre is the lost tribe of British politics. But how true is that?

If moderate voters felt so let down by the range of choices on offer at the general election, why hasn’t the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth been about a party in pursuit of power?

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By that logic, the Lib Dems should have become the third force in the House of Commons in June by hoovering up Remain voters horrified at the prospect of Brexit and alienated by Labour’s turn to the left.

Lib Dems are confused as to why their brave stance on Brexit went unrewarded. They were the only major party to go into the snap general election setting out a plan to keep the whole of the UK in the EU.

With Brexit talks still to get off the ground and the government’s position in disarray, their revival should have been all but guaranteed. The Lib Dems could be pulling the strings of a minority government led by Amber Rudd – or Jeremy Corbyn – rather than the DUP propping up Theresa May. That 48 per cent of the electorate was there for the taking. What went wrong?

The toxic legacy of coalition government clearly still clings to them, and with the architect of their albatross tuition fees policy now leading the party, that problem may linger on further.

But their brave and nearly singular stand for a referendum on the terms of the UK’s exit deal was expected to deliver a ballot box rebellion that never materialised.

Under Vince Cable, the party has doubled down on the same strategy. Just don’t call it a second referendum.

At every level of the party, the discipline is rigid: this is a “first referendum on the facts”, not a second referendum on EU membership.

Commentators who say the snap election came too soon for the Lib Dems believe the party can lie in wait until the next general election to capture the hollow centre of UK politics.

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As one well-connected Lib Dem insider put it: “People knew the Tories were for Brexit. They saw Labour were against the Tories, and thought they were against Brexit. They didn’t know that was really us.”

Party strategists believe that once a major economic hit is felt on the ground – for instance, if a car manufacturer were to shift a factory to eastern Europe – the mood will change.

If a shift in opinion isn’t already in the post, then that strategy is in trouble.

All through the summer, as families have been on their holidays on the continent, the pound has been in basement, inflating the cost of flights and hotels. Sunseekers also had a taste of what passport control could be like after Brexit, with tougher security rules resulting in big queues at some airports. Looming immigration restrictions are already hitting public services as European nursing staff rethink their place in the UK. Brexit is already having an impact, but it isn’t clear the Lib Dems have benefitted.

I’m not the only person in Bournemouth over the past few days who isn’t totally convinced. Several of the party’s MPs have called for a strategy that goes beyond Brexit.

Jo Swinson warned party activists that they needed to fight for a soft Brexit and a long transition, because that may be the only way to take the UK back into the EU. And Alistair Carmichael rightly argued that a broader national conversation about the UK’s place in Europe would be needed if another referendum is to produce a different result.

Grassroots Lib Dem members – the party has broken its record with over 100,000 on the books – are happy enough with the party’s stance, and with their new leader. It was over a decade ago that Mr Cable cemented his place as the UK’s economic elder statesman by comparing Gordon Brown to Mr Bean, and activists seem reassured by his seniority.

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But they, too, aren’t completely convinced. During a Q&A, Cable was challenged by a member over why the party wasn’t taking an even stronger line against Brexit. Not just calling for a vote on whether to go ahead with it, but being absolutely, unequivocally committed to stopping it by reversing Article 50 at Westminster and reasserting parliamentary democracy over the tyranny of the referendum.

Lib Dems are fans of proportional representation, and proportionally the biggest cheer in Bournemouth wasn’t for Mr Cable in the main auditorium, but tucked away in a much smaller fringe venue.

It was for James Chapman, a name you might not have heard of until recently, if at all. Mr Chapman was the political editor of the Daily Mail before becoming an adviser to George Osborne, and when he was sacked as Chancellor, to David Davis at the newly-formed Department for Exiting the EU. He quit ahead of the general election and has since been agitating to stop Brexit, sailing close to the wind with social media attacks on his former boss. The Lib Dems should lead a campaign against plans to demand biometric data from EU nationals resident in the UK, he argued. In these extraordinary times, voters are fleeing to the extremes because only they offer a vision that measures up to the reality. On Europe and the economy, the current incarnations of both the Tories and Labour are the most radical for decades, and both enjoy poll ratings above 40 per cent.

In Northern Ireland, Brexit has driven people away from the centre and towards two parties who can’t or won’t work together.

Even once-sensible commentators spent the summer, seriously and without shame, promoting the idea that Jacob Rees-Mogg could be Tory leader. They now indulge Boris Johnson’s tilt at Number 10 using discredited statistics.

When Mr Cable stands up today to deliver his conference-closing speech, his job won’t be to set a trap for centrist voters in five years’ time – it will be to set out a programme that goes hunting for them now.