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Why my party missed its big moment

An overzealous Jo Swinson spooked moderates by pledging to revoke the referendum vote. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

Former Lib Dem candidate TIM WALKER reflects with sadness, but also frankness, on what went wrong for his party.

If Boris Johnson made me look not to the stars but to the gutter throughout the election, Jeremy Corbyn made me glaze over… and Jo Swinson made me sigh and think of what might have been.

She helped to make it happen and went into it with the promise of going high as the others went low. She said that there was no limit to her ambitions. The moral high ground was ours for the taking, but time and again she baulked at it.

The election was a disaster not just for Corbyn, but also Swinson, who could not even retain her own seat in East Dunbartonshire. So much worse than that, it is a disaster for the whole country and all of us who had looked to both of their parties for hope.

If Labour and the Lib Dems had only managed to get their acts together – standing down their candidates where they had no chance and would serve only to divide the anti-Tory vote – this election could have been so very different.

So much more united Labour and Lib Dem supporters in this election than divided them, but the dilemma they faced has deprived so many now of any voice at all in parliament and that is unforgivable.

I know that Swinson had attempted to get Corbyn to see sense, and had tried to encourage him to enter into a Remain alliance, but, when that proved not to be possible, she should still have been bigger and better.

Where it was clear the Lib Dems could not win, we simply should not have stood because that was the right, practical and moral thing to do.

So many people had joined the Lib Dems, as I had, in recent years specifically because we wanted to see not just an end to Brexit, but also a new kind of politics, an emphatic break with the past and a bold new vision for our country. We were sick to death of politics as usual, and we wanted something better.

I had not supported Swinson in the leadership contest during the summer because, when I’d interviewed her for The New European and asked her why she should lead us, she could only come up with an exhaustive list of all her recent media appearances. She seemed not to understand that leadership is not simply about getting herself on to the airwaves, but having something to say and possessing an appealing vision.

Still, once elected by my fellow members as leader, I got behind her, wrote a piece that wished her well and hoped against hope that the apprehensions I’d had about her would prove to be unfounded. Soon, however, it was painfully obvious that what she had regarded as her foremost skill – as the great communicator, who could engage with the nation – was in fact her greatest weakness.

So much of what she had to communicate soon had to be uncommunicated. We started off telling the nation we were the party of Revoke, and then, towards the end of the election campaign, we reverted to being the party of a further referendum. Soon, too, our ambitions were limited to no longer talking about an all-out victory, but intimating we’d be more than happy to do a deal with a bigger party, even the Tories.

Most of the Lib Dems I respected the most were in a state of silent fury about how the election was being handled. This was simply not who we were or what we wanted to represent.

It felt like playing a video game where the principal character kept doing exactly the opposite to what we wanted. Even Sir Vince Cable, who had done so much of the groundwork to make our party a viable fighting force again, let it be known the whole Revoke idea had been a mistake and a distraction.

Still more fissures became manifest when I stepped down, shortly before the close of nominations, as our candidate in Canterbury. The members of the local association were overwhelmingly against me standing because they could see that, with no chance at all of winning, I would serve no other purpose than to dilute the Remain vote and gift wrap the seat for the Tory candidate, who was a former Vote Leave stalwart.

For some time, I reconciled myself to being the pressure point between the local membership and the gung-ho national leadership. Eventually it wasn’t the abuse I was receiving locally that persuaded me to stand down, but the sheer absurd irony of the situation. I had dedicated the past three years of my life to doing everything I could to put a stop to Brexit and that indeed had been the reason I’d joined the Lib Dems in the first place.

And suddenly this very party expected me to help to facilitate it – personally ensuring a Brextremist Tory would oust a principled Remainer in Labour’s Rosie Duffield. I’d hoped when I decided to withdraw that the leadership would at least respect my decision, and the clear wishes of the local membership, but, in the event, what could have been a public relations triumph swiftly turned to disaster. When no one locally was willing to take my place, the party imposed another candidate from outside the area.

Once again, the moral high ground had been there – Swinson’s chance to show that we were above the pettinesses of politics as usual – but she chose not to take it. Local members, who had formed a ‘Lib Dems for Rosie’ organisation, felt largely alienated. I knew precisely how high the stakes were at local level and made a point of travelling to the constituency to campaign for Duffield. Mercifully, she just managed to see off her Tory challenger, as I knew the local party would have been left to deal with the consequences for many years if she’d failed.

Getting their retaliation in first, a great many of Swinson’s supporters started to apportion blame for the campaign before it was even over to anyone but her. There was a lot of talk about misogyny. This, too, seemed to me yet another irony, as the problem with the whole Lib Dem campaign, right from the early photo call in a boxing ring, was that it had been much too aggressive and masculine.

The rebranding of the party as Jo Swinson’s Lib Dems; the unhesitating, unqualified answer to whether she would be willing to use the nuclear deterrent; the angry voice in the debates; the refusal in the final days to even countenance stepping down irrespective of the result; these were all, for traditional Lib Dems, not the embodiment of any of us at our best.

A few tabloid newspapers offered me fat cheques to criticise Swinson after my withdrawal from Canterbury, but I recognised the last thing my party wanted in the middle of an election campaign was friendly fire. Now, however, it is a time for serious reflection. The tough, abrasive style that she introduced to the Lib Dems has done for her. Liberalism can and must find a champion in this country – it is more important now than ever – and our party needs to find a leader that voters up and down the country can take to their hearts. I am sad that Luciana Berger cannot now be considered, or, for that matter, the wonderful Monica Harding, who tried so hard to unseat Dominic Raab in Esher. Layla Moran, however, remains in place and a symbol of hope for my party. The formidable Ed Davey, too.

My hunch is that come the next election it won’t just be my party and Labour that have new leaders, but also the Tories. The curse of Brexit will strike again. Quite possibly a new party will by then have emerged, too, from the ruins. Our country is down, but not out, and despite everything that’s happened, I believe that with the right people in the right jobs, our country may yet regain her greatness.

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