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Could Jo Swinson inadvertently become Brexit’s midwife?

Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson reacts as she exits the party's campaign 'Battle Bus' in north west London on November 6, 2019, during their general election campaign. - The splintered country is entering its third general election in four years in search of a solution to monumental crisis launched by voters' decision in 2016 to file for a divorce from the European Union after nearly 50 years. (Photo by Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP via Getty Images) - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

JOHN KAMPFNER says the Liberal Democrat leader’s unequivocal Remain position may not be enough… she may need the politics to match the message

What is the point of the Liberal Democrats? To ask the question is not to ridicule. Rather the reverse: It is only when it asks itself the question that the third party in the UK’s skewed electoral system has a chance.

Under Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dems achieved distinctiveness in their opposition to the Iraq war. I always smirk when I recall that pretty much everyone in the two big parties and most newspapers were gung-ho for war – only to deny it afterwards. The Lib Dems hoovered up all the genuine doubters, and there was an awful lot of them. That was part courage, part calculation.

In 2010, Nick Clegg was on to something special too, presenting himself as a fresh start in politics. The collapse in his party’s fortunes at the end of the coalition government in the 2015 general election could have spelt its long-term demise. It had already lost its third-place berth at Westminster to the SNP. In Vince Cable it had a leader who was weary and uninspiring.

Brexit came to the rescue for the Lib Dems, and its new leader, Jo Swinson, the more so as under Jeremy Corbyn Labour tied itself in knots over the single most important question of our time.

Hence the question: Why is Swinson adopting an election strategy that is likely to bring Brexit about in barely two months’ time? The harm that a January 31 departure will do to the country is self-evident to all Remainers, but what about the harm to her own party? This emphatically is not how she and her lieutenants see it, of course.

At the heart of the problem is the Lib Dems’ relationship to Labour. The line of attack against the Conservatives is clear. They are now the party of Leave, of a hard Brexit. Indeed, Boris Johnson proclaims as much. The Tory parliamentary party has lost most of those who could still call themselves moderates. Some have joined the Lib Dems (Sam Gyimah being the most significant direct transfer, others like Sarah Wollaston taking the more circumlocutory course via Change UK). One Nation Conservative voters have the choice between holding their noses, convincing themselves that a five-year, post-Brexit Johnson government wouldn’t be that bad, or opting for Swinson’s team. They have nowhere else to go.

There are potentially rich pickings for the Lib Dems in Tory constituencies in the south west and in parts of London. High-profile signings (from Labour) such as Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna are moving through the field and could pick up Finchley and Golders Green, and Cities of London and Westminster respectively.

In so doing, the Lib Dems might even get close to Clegg’s successful 2010 campaign, when they secured more than 50 seats. They would once again become a significant minority presence in the House of Commons. But, Remainers would be forgiven for asking, so what? Or rather, at what cost?

There are only two options for Brexit following the election: A Johnson overall majority, in which case Brexit will be all over; or a minority, in which Corbyn would depend on the Lib Dems and SNP for his survival. They would insist on a second Brexit referendum (and in the case of Nicola Sturgeon a second Scottish independence vote too).

So why not seek to engineer such an outcome? If, as the Lib Dems claim, Brexit is the defining issue, why let other concerns get in the way? The animosity between the two parties of the centre-left has invariably been bitter. Labour activists, even going back to Paddy Ashdown’s day, have likened the Lib Dems to the devil incarnate. When I wrote a pamphlet with Clegg, I recall one reader’s comment in the newspaper said: “Even Judas was better than you.”

A fully-fledged pre-election alliance was probably too much to ask. Swinson was a fully paid-up member of the coalition with the Conservatives and as Corbynists never fail to point out, her voting record and ministerial statements were staunchly loyal. For their part, the Lib Dems attack Corbyn for extremism and on the issue of anti-Semitism, while decrying his “I don’t have a view so why don’t we put it to a vote” Brexit equivocations.

These accusations might shore up your core vote and keep your more tribal activists happy, but they don’t get you very far in the present circumstances. The Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru are helping each other out, but that will affect barely a handful of seats. The two bigger parties could, and should, have found a way to work together, even if short of a pact. There is no sign of that. Indeed when the admirable Tim Walker – Mandrake columnist for this newspaper – stood down as the Lib Dem candidate in the ultra-marginal seat of Canterbury, to give the Labour incumbent a chance to see off the Brexit-ultra Tory, he was admonished by Swinson, who proceeded to install someone else.

Swinson appears to be leaving the door open to cooperating in the longer term with Labour, but not with Corbyn at the helm. That approach was tried nine years ago by Clegg. He insisted he wouldn’t go into coalition with Gordon Brown, who he saw as a busted flush. That, as we all know, didn’t end well.

In any case, talk of post-election collaboration is wishful thinking. Even though negotiations with the EU on a future arrangement will take many months, or rather years, and will swerve from acrimony to crisis and back again, the politics will be different. The public will assume it to be more an administrative matter and attention will turn again, with some relief, to the domestic agenda.

Johnson will, with his customary hubris, splash the cash, portraying himself as a man of the people. He has learnt every trick from the Trump rule book. Meanwhile, Labour will be tearing itself apart in a leadership election. The Lib Dems would be side-lined, their unique selling point no more.

They could re-package themselves as the party that would take us back into the European Union; they will continue to portray themselves as the sensible party of sound finances, the greenest of them all, but by then very few people will be listening.

The polls continue to look robust for the Conservatives. The result on December 12 is by no means a foregone conclusion, however. The crisis in the NHS and the flooding in Yorkshire and Derbyshire have the potential to hurt the government, while Johnson can always be relied upon to stumble into trouble.

Will the Lib Dems and Labour direct their fire on the one party that is unashamedly determined to make Brexit happen? As things stand, in dozens of constituencies the Tories could end up winning by the tiniest of margins and with barely 30% of the vote.

Swinson was right to feel aggrieved at being denied equal billing in the television debates. Her role is vital in this election. But it is also binary. Will she do everything in her power to stop Brexit? Or will she inadvertently be remembered as its midwife? Her choice is unpleasantly stark.

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