The opportunity now facing the Lib Dems is immense, says JOHN KAMPFNER. But the challenge is far more complex than it might first appear.
Rarely has there been a more propitious time to become leader of a liberal party. The space normally inhabited by a once-small group of spirited decent folk in the centre of politics has become a chasm, as millions seek a safe harbour from extremism.
Boris Johnson’s first cabinet and his early pronouncements have confirmed the worst fears of a hard-right, no-deal Brexit administration.
Meantime, Jeremy Corbyn is nowhere to be seen, unable to make political headway or shake off anti-Semitism accusations.
No surprise, therefore, that on assuming the mantle of Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson declared that “liberalism is alive and kicking”. It is not just the recent election results and opinion polls that give rise to optimism, but the realisation that is dawning on so many voters that they have nobody to represent them.
The three-year-long Brexit crisis shows every sign in the next three months of turning into a catastrophe. This is potentially a historic moment: Swinson and her colleagues should not let that opportunity go to waste. Yet before being swept away by hyperbole, reality quickly intervenes. The Lib Dems suffer from a series of logistical problems.
They are small party, down to barely a dozen MPs. Having lost their perch as third party to the SNP, their leader no longer has a guaranteed slot at prime minister’s questions (although under Theresa May that weekly institution lost some of its cut-through with the public).
The party suffers from a small budget, and limited fundraising resources. It struggles to be heard. Even the Lib Dem leadership election passed virtually without notice – although the two candidates did what they could to achieve consensus and thereby deprive the contest of news value.
Over the years the party has suffered repeated identity crises. At times it has been dismissed as frivolous, the sandal-wearing brigade. At others it is seen as lacking in a clear ideology, more a triangulation, a soft mush between left and right.
The one time it did break through, spectacularly, came back to haunt it. The Clegg era was a determination from its then fresh-faced leader to take the party in a new direction. Its conferences were more serious, suited affairs.
Clegg wanted the Lib Dems to be a party of power rather than protest. What was the point, he argued consistently in his heyday of 2009-2010, of being in politics if you didn’t have the levers to make changes to people’s lives?
The history of the period 2010-15 has been much chewed over by Lib Dems. How did they go from such strength to virtual obliteration? Tuition fees provided the talismanic source of discontent that allowed many first-time voters to accuse the party of deceiving them.
The truth was more human. With no institutional history of coalitions, with a civil service ill equipped to oversee the process, Clegg allowed himself to be bounced into arrangements with Cameron that gave the Conservatives the upper hand. The love-in in the Downing Street garden on day one set the tone. For the first two years, the Tories hoovered up the Lib Dem contributions and successes, spewing out only problems in return.
As a final act of ingratitude, Cameron launched his decapitation strategy for the 2015 general election, which decimated the Lib Dems across the country, especially in the south west.
In a classic case of be careful what you wish for, his desire for single-party rule led to the defeat of the one force that would have allowed him not to call an EU referendum. The rest, as they say…
All that is history. The voting records of Swinson and her leadership opponent, Ed Davey, are pointlessly dredged up by the Labour left. What do people expect? They were both ministers in the coalition, standing by its policies through collective responsibility.
For sure, they must regret certain positions they took, but compared to everything that followed, that Cameron-Clegg government was a study in seriousness.
Swinson will be advised not to dwell on the past. In any case, as the first female leader of her party, and the first leader of any main UK party to have been born in the 1980s, she is not associated in the public’s mind with the coalition.
What matters is what she does with her mandate. The short-term plan, as she laid out in her victory speech, is clear. She will “take on nationalism and populism” and “do whatever it takes to stop Brexit”. Labour’s equivocations give the Lib Dems an open field to fight Johnson at every turn. It is as simple as that.
If the new PM calls a snap election before securing Brexit, then it will be a straight fight for power, and for our future relations with Europe.
The Lib Dems are likely to see a massive infusion of cash into their coffers, and no shortage of talented people seeking to stand for election or help behind the scenes.
The smart money will urge other parties to work in alliance during that election, as was the case in microcosm during this week’s Brecon and Radnorshire by-election.
One of the keys to the Lib Dems’ success in an autumn election will be the choices made by Labour Remain voters. Such is the tribalism, the ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ tendency of so many Labour supporters, the assumption will be that a large proportion of those who held their noses and lent the Lib Dems their support during the locals, then the European elections (famously encouraged by Alastair Campbell), will return to the fold.
I have never understood what lies behind the visceral loathing so many on the left harbour for the Lib Dems. It is often more severe than the hostility they show towards the Tories.
The Lib Dems have always been at their strongest when they have taken a stand against others’ actions, others’ mistakes – Iraq and now Brexit. Where they have tried to force the pace, such as a referendum on limited constitutional reform, they have come a cropper. Will this time be any different?
That is their challenge, indeed that is the challenge which goes beyond the success of one political party.
More than a decade after the financial crash, with the politics of fear and division reigning not just in the UK but in much of the democratic world, what is the radical recipe for addressing those underlying challenges?
It has to go beyond the triangulation of Blair, finding bits and bobs that appeal to those on the right, and equally baubles for the left.
The tragicomedy that was the few months’ existence of Change UK brought that to the fore. That putative party had barely begun, however.
The Lib Dems have been around for a long time. They need to articulate policies that reconcile globalisation and the free market with inequity and the climate emergency. They need to show that Europeanism and internationalism is more than a middle-class construct and has a direct bearing on improving people’s lives.
They will need to confront the reality of potential success and devise a transparent plan for how to work with a future Labour or Conservative minority government that does not lead to opprobrium and emasculation.
These are daunting challenges. Alongside marking out a clearer future is the here and now, the 100 or so days to stop Britain falling off a cliff edge and into a dystopian world of isolationism. Success on that front would be no mean feat.