BARNABY TOWNS: The Lib Dems can still win ultimate Brexit prize

Jo Swinson, leader of the Liberal Democrats, during the ITV Election Debate. Picture: Matt Frost/ITV

Jo Swinson, leader of the Liberal Democrats, during the ITV Election Debate. Picture: Matt Frost/ITV via Getty Images - Credit: ITV via Getty Images

The Lib Dems have had a challenging campaign - but their prize is still in sight, says Barnaby Towns.

From a high point polling 23% back in September to registering about double their 7% 2017 vote share currently, Liberal Democrat performance to date has underwhelmed supporters and opponents alike.

Wisely, a campaign pivot has been swiftly executed - from claiming the aim is an overall Lib Dem majority and touting Article 50 revocation on the back of such a mandate, to stressing the urgent need to deprive Boris Johnson of a working majority in the next parliament and secure a People's Vote on EU membership.

So far, so sensible. While it is constitutionally correct that a general election win trumps any prior referendum - or general election - result; and although Article 50 was merely (foolishly and prematurely) triggered by Theresa May to impress Leave voters in 2017; and even though it makes no sense to negotiate with the EU against a time-limited deadline, a Lib Dem parliamentary majority isn't realistic. Unsurprisingly, revocation also is anathema to Leave voters.

More seriously, Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson's difficulty on the BBC's Question Time, Leaders Special and worsening favourability poll ratings are highlighted as evidence of a faltering campaign.

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But to place these in context, the Lib Dems must work hard to be included at all and were excluded from the first debate. And the BBC audience which Swinson was allowed to face was based on the 2017 general election and so was dominated by Conservative and Labour supporters.

Unlike fellow BBC participants on the show, Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon, Swinson has only been in the national spotlight for less than a year.

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As for approval ratings, Swinson does enjoy net favourable ratings among Remainers - for better or worse, the Lib Dem target audience in 2019. The party may now regret having been so keen to co-operate with the government's desire for a general election, but there was also risk in the last parliament that a small minority of Labour MPs would help Johnson drag his hard Brexit deal over the line.

It is also the case that the party would have lost credibility by repeatedly refusing calls for a general election. From here, action should now move to Conservative-held Remain-supporting seats where the Lib Dems are competitive. While the party had some cause for disappointment with the recent YouGov MRP poll, it did point to victories in Tory-held Bath, Cheltenham, Richmond Park and St Albans, as well as Sheffield Hallam, where Labour defeated former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg in 2017.

Admittedly, the poll also indicated likely losses in such Leave-voting Lib Dem seats as Eastbourne, North Norfolk and recent by-election win Brecon and Radnorshire. But YouGov also has Lib Dems as competitive in Tory Remain-voting South Cambridgeshire (2% behind); Winchester (3%); Cheadle, Guildford (5%); Lewes (6%); Kensington (8%); Hazel Grove (9%); Wokingham (10%); Esher, Chelsea and Fulham (11%); Wimbledon, Cities of London and Westminster (13%); Wantage, Putney (15%) and a number of likely harder-to-win Leave seats.

This particular poll has earned special status due to its lone prediction of a hung parliament in 2017, or more precisely the fact that it called 93% of constituency winners correctly. But it is worth reading its results alongside constituency-wide polls with far larger sample-sizes.

Among these, three London marginal offer Lib Dems hope. Deltapoll has Tory turned Lib Dem Sam Gyimah only three points behind the Conservatives in Kensington. Fellow newly-minted Lib Dem Chuka Umunna is six points behind the Tories in previously safe Cities of London and Westminster, according to this pollster, which also has the party two points behind in Wimbledon.

Tantalisingly for Remainers, Survation finds Tory defector to the Lib Dems Phillip Lee only four points behind arch-Brexiteer John Redwood in Wokingham; and the Lib Dem candidate in formerly rock-solid safe Esher and Walton, endorsed by the previous Tory MP for the seat, 11 points adrift of unseating Brexit hardliner Dominic Raab. New Lib Dem recruit Luciana Berger is up 12 against the Tories on one constituency poll and down 14 on another.

Beyond polling, there is some momentum on the Lib Dem side, with ex-deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine - who joined the Tories when Winston Churchill was PM - urging a Lib Dem vote. And the pollsters' consensus that Jeremy Corbyn can't win a majority also may reassure some Remain Tories still uncertain how to vote.

A strictly proportional voting system would yield 91 seats for a 14% vote share. But under first-past-the-post, preventing a Johnson majority-government and the ultra-hard Brexit without any referendum that entails, would surely be prize enough.

- Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party special adviser

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