JAMES BALL says the Lib Dems are doing what they do best: bite-size, populist politics based on the principle they won’t have to deliver on promises.
Even to those not following the news closely, the big news out of the Liberal Democrat conference probably didn’t feel all that new – the party has made it its official policy to become the absolute party of Remain by backing revocation of Article 50 without a second referendum.
This does mark a significant moment in theory at least: it is now the official policy of one of the UK’s three biggest parties to overturn the result of 2016’s referendum without another plebiscite to supersede it.
In practice, though, it doesn’t mean very much: the party isn’t making this a condition of a hypothetical future coalition or confidence and supply arrangement – this would only be the party’s policy if it won a majority in the House of Commons, which is astronomically unlikely.
So why have the Lib Dems gone all-out for a policy that is more-or-less dead on arrival? At first glance the decision can easily look like a mistake – pro-Brexit parties and politicians have gleefully jumped on the policy as evidence that Remain supporters don’t support democracy and want to overthrow the ‘will of the people’. Even pro-Remain politicians like Green MP Caroline Lucas have criticised the new policy as not respecting the result of the referendum.
The policy also opens the door to rivals to adopt similar policies: the moral reasoning behind Lib Dems backing revoke without a referendum is that if they won a majority of seats in the Commons, that is itself a clear democratic mandate.
Opponents of this position have several arguments. One is simply that it is possible to gain a majority of the Commons with around 35% of the votes cast, which is an uncomfortable way to overturn a vote which secured 52% of votes cast – especially if election turnout were lower than that in the referendum.
The other is the precedent the Lib Dem position would cast. If it is politically legitimate to overturn a referendum in such a position, what would prevent the SNP declaring that if they won an absolute majority of MSPs at Holyrood at the next Scottish elections then that would represent a democratic mandate for Scottish independence, without a referendum?
Given the fractures the policy has caused with other parties in the pro-Remain alliance, and the apparent constitutional issues of backing revocation, what’s in it for the Lib Dems?
Politically the policy is as low-risk as it could be for the party – the Conservatives have already been framing the Lib Dem’s position as pro-revoke and anti-‘democracy’, and would only step up those attacks in an election campaign. Making revoke the party’s actual policy will make no difference to that.
That leaves the Lib Dems looking for an electoral strategy that will give it some distinction from other parties looking to court Remain voters.
Given that Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the Greens, and – however many positions on Brexit it’s had along the way – Labour all back a second referendum, the Lib Dems now have a point of difference, and a claim to be the ‘purest’ pro-Remain party.
This sets something of a trap for the others. The Lib Dems are virtually baiting Labour to attack them as now being too pro-Remain or anti-democratic – doing so would make it easier to paint Labour as playing both sides on Brexit, even if they lean more heavily towards Remain in an election campaign.
The risk to the Lib Dems is losing ‘moderate’ Remainers – those who want to stop Brexit but would rather do so through a second referendum than revocation – back towards Labour. But Jo Swinson is betting there are not many such people. If they’re right, the result is something of a win-win for the Lib Dems – either they can paint themselves to voters as the purest pro-Remain party and Labour will remain silent, or else Labour will start attacking Conservatives as too pro-Leave and Lib Dems as too pro-Remain, leaving themselves stuck in the Brexit centre-ground that led to their disastrous performance in the EU elections earlier this year.
As to the smaller parties, Swinson and her team will likely be celebrating Caroline Lucas’s attack on their policy – they have the distinction they would have wanted from the Greens, and if they want it, an excuse to break an electoral pact for reasons of ‘principle’, should it prove advantageous.
There was a time when looking for the middle ground on Brexit was the politically right thing to do, and clearly would have been the best way to try to avoid years if not decades of bitter political division. That moment passed long ago: both Brexiteers and Remainers have become radicalised. Supporting a soft Brexit or holding any kind of nuanced compromise will only bring people together in hating your position.
The Lib Dems have decided to lean into that reality and give Remain ultras what they want. If they actually had to deliver it, they would likely cause bitter and lasting ructions in the country, if not a full-blown constitutional crisis – but they won’t have to deliver it.
The Lib Dems are doing what they do best: easy, bite-size, populist politics based on the principle that they won’t have to deliver what they promise. They have likely made a good bet on this one – provided their voters forgive them if they end up involved in government and have to water down what they actually deliver. That was not what happened last time.