Lib Dem Conference 2019 – Is Brexit the Party’s gift or curse?

By Lizzy Tomlin, Senior Account Manager

What a difference a year makes. Lib Dem Conference in 2018 saw the then-Leader Vince Cable fluff his well-briefed line “erotic spasm” to the delight of the sparse journalists who had ventured to Brighton. Gina Miller stood on stage to declare she wasn’t the Lib Dem’s “leader-in-waiting” and the Party was, more broadly, not seen as a credible campaign winning machine.

Since then, the Lib Dems have elected a dynamic female Leader, had electoral success in European and Local elections, gained seven new MPs (one through a by-election and six from defections), 700 new Councillors, are core components of cross-party Parliamentary working groups on Brexit and their polling is respectable, fluctuating between 19% and 21%.

One similarity from 2018 remains – Lib Dem members are cheerful, united and growing in numbers. The Party claims it was their biggest ever Conference – bigger even than those in the Coalition heydays – and the packed fringe events (with a distinct lack of air conditioning) demonstrated this.

However, taking a step back, this Conference was all quite sickly sweet. Chuka Umunna MP claimed he had a new “family”, London mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita said she had a new brother in Chuka, Luciana Berger MP shed tears as she received applause and Sam Gyimah MP was heckled a number of times, but mainly with shouts of ‘welcome’. Leader Jo Swinson’s claim the Party could win 100, if not 300 seats only added to a heightened sense of optimism.

Yet there are small signs of cracks in the Party’s Brexit policy and liberal values. The Motion to revoke Article 50 if the Lib Dems win a General Election passed overwhelmingly and provided great press coverage, but it was divisive and almost caused a squabble at the family gathering in Bournemouth. Norman Lamb MP spoke out against the policy, representing the first fissure in their Brexit position and it led to questions around whether the Party has the united and clear message on Brexit they claim.

Similarly with new arrival Philip Lee, the Party was forced to defend allowing the former Conservative MP to cross the floor. Criticism remains around his past actions including his campaign to block migrants living with HIV from entering the UK and the fact he did not vote in favour of same-sex marriage. Quickly papered over and dismissed, the Lib Dems risk playing happy families and not addressing these cracks that could deepen.

The majority of members, however, remain blissfully happy for now and Swinson’s rousing speech at the end of Conference encapsulated the positive energy in the Party. The real challenge now begins for Swinson to maintain this momentum and build on recent success by addressing two fundamental questions; can the Party retain their new members and can it survive in a post-Brexit world. This challenge was evident in Swinson’s closing speech, which included her vision for society and the economy, including introducing a Wellbeing Budget and ring-fencing mental health spending. Yet Brexit dominated the speech and Brexit is what it will be remembered for.

The Lib Dems struggle to make themselves heard in debates outside of Brexit whilst negotiations are ongoing, and this could lead to long-term harm for the Party. With no credible platform to create and comment on domestic policy, membership could dwindle and defectors and incumbent MPs could find themselves without a seat. Brexit has gifted the Lib Dems an advantageous position in UK politics, but could ultimately be their curse.

Get in Touch

Lizzy Tomlin

Senior Account Manager

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