Party Conference season got underway over the weekend with the Liberal Democrat annual get together in Bournemouth. The mood on the ground was optimistic and jovial, which might seem like a result of their political revival, but is actually just what Lib Dem Conference is always like. Never shy about getting carried away, on many occasions Jo Swinson was referred to, earnestly, as ‘the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom,’ to rapturous applause. When the newest addition to the family, Sam Gyimah MP, was unveiled on stage, it only added to the fervour.
But underneath the happy-clappy celebration there was a serious and even tense debate brewing. The Lib Dem leadership made the decision to change course from advocating a People’s Vote on Britain’s future in theEU and instead to backing revoking Article 50 outright in the event that they form a majority government. The justification for this is that if the Lib Dems were to be elected on the manifesto commitment of stopping Brexit, then they would have a mandate to do so and the need to hold another referendum would become redundant.
The real justification is more complicated and tactical. The Labour Party is edging further towards giving a People’s Vote its full backing. Yes, they have been dragged kicking and screaming down this path, but they have nonetheless travelled down it. This presents a problem for the Lib Dems as the principle reason for the uptick in their popularity has been because they are the only party wholeheartedly and unapologetically pro-Remain. Moving to a ‘Revoke’ rather than ‘People’s Vote’ policy is an attempt to keep hold of this crown, to paint Labour as ambiguous and in the middle, and to ensure there is still clear water between the parties. There is a logic to this, and to be fair to Swinson et al, there is also logic to the idea that winning an election would give some level of mandate for stopping Brexit.
But there is also a significant flip side. Over the last three years, Lib Dems have been fighting for a People’s Vote. They birthed the policy under Tim Farron, helped lead ‘People’s Vote’ marches around the country, and argued tirelessly in favour of it. The same lines were used by subsequent leaders and Lib Dem activists: “The people voted for a departure but not a destination”…. “A referendum began this process and so only a referendum can end it.” And so on. The feeling that a deeply held policy is being ditched because it has become too mainstream is uncomfortable for some, and also seems quite ‘un-Lib Dem’. This is meant to be the party that fights against the extremes afterall. A passionate speech against this move was delivered by Lib Dem veteran Simon Hughes, who pleaded that the Party reconsider and received considerable applause for doing so.
The plea was unsuccessful however and the motion passed through party members by a strong margin in the end. Most Lib Dems will leave conference still upbeat and largely united, and Swinson remains a highly popular figure internally. All eyes however, will be firmly set on the public reaction to the new policy to see if this new bold Lib Dem gamble will pay off.