The Lib Dem ‘stop Brexit’ ship is sinking. Now, many of their supporters are flocking to Jeremy Corbyn

Vince Cable hoped his campaign against Brexit would give his party a new lease of life, but it has yet to happen

John Rentoul
Saturday 27 January 2018 16:25 GMT
When we leave the EU, they won’t even have 'Stop Brexit' as their unique selling point
When we leave the EU, they won’t even have 'Stop Brexit' as their unique selling point (Getty)

“That ephemeral group of supporters that always clusters round anything new.” Tony Blair has always been dismissive of new centrist parties. In 1982, he thought the Social Democratic Party breakaway from Labour was doomed to failure. Its base was weak because it had cut itself off from the trade unions, he said, and its support came from people who thought Labour was too extreme but whose “lingering social consciences” prevented them voting Tory. Plus those ephemeral suckers for novelty.

We know where those lovers of newness ended up next. They were part of the huge coalition that clustered round New Labour in its first two elections. Then, at the end of the Labour government, they returned to the SDP’s successor, the Liberal Democrats.

In the 2010 election campaign, Nick Clegg’s appearance on the first of the TV debates pushed the Lib Dems briefly into the lead in four opinion polls, averaging 33 per cent, one or two points ahead of the Conservatives, with Labour well behind on 26 per cent.

Vince Cable's party conference speech in 60 seconds

That bubble was already subsiding by the time the polls closed, but after Clegg went into coalition with David Cameron the Lib Dems dropped to single figures in the opinion polls, where they have stayed since.

Since the EU referendum, the party has hoped for resurgence, but it hasn’t happened yet. In the 2017 election, Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Brexit was sufficiently ambiguous to keep Labour’s Remain and Leave wings attached to the main body. Many Lib Dems thought that, as Brexit day approached and Corbyn’s acquiescence with it became clearer, the “48 per cent” would rally to Vince Cable’s banner.

It seemed, briefly, as if there might be something in this pitch when Sarah Olney won Richmond Park in the December 2016 by-election. But it turned out that the Lib Dems being the anti-Tory option was as important as Remainery in the 27th most Remainy constituency in the country, and she lost it again seven months later.

The Lib Dems have a clear position, wanting to keep Britain in the EU and demanding a second referendum – “the first referendum on the terms of the deal”, as Cable has cannily branded it. And yet in the six national polls so far this year the party’s average support is unchanged from its share of the vote last year: 7.6 per cent.

Why is the party not doing better? Cable is a serious, experienced leader, well known to voters. He has style, and avuncular charisma. If he and his party were popular, his age and his hat could be part of a personality cult.

So why doesn’t the party’s clear opposition to Brexit translate into higher support? A large part of the answer is probably that few normal people care about Brexit to the exclusion of all else. For most voters, Brexit was something about which they were asked in 2016 and they are waiting for the Government to get on with it.

Some Labour supporters care a lot and are desperately disappointed with Corbyn’s insistence that the referendum must be respected, but most of them seem to be focused on the campaign to stay in the single market. Others care a lot but don’t really know what Corbyn’s position is, or they assume his opposition to a “Tory Brexit” means he is with them.

Then there is Cable’s invisibility. It is fashionable to say that Prime Minister’s Questions isn’t as important as it used to be, but it is still a potential platform. The Lib Dems’ loss of third-party status in the Commons to the Scottish National Party is significant. During the coalition, Clegg got to sit next to Cameron and very occasionally to stand in for him. Now the Lib Dems don’t even have the two questions automatically allocated to the third-largest party, and so Cable doesn’t have the weekly chance for journalists to say, as they did of Angus Robertson – although not of the SNP’s current leader, Ian Blackford – that he showed Corbyn how leading the opposition is done.

Then there is the long poisonous legacy of the coalition. If you asked voters what the Lib Dems stand for, they would probably mention breaking their promise on tuition fees before they mention Europe. And Cable, twinkletoes sage though he may be, was the minister who put the tripling of tuition fees into law.

This I think is part of the most important reason the Lib Dems are cast down so low. That “ephemeral group of supporters that always clusters round anything new” is clustering around Jeremy Corbyn now. After Labour did unexpectedly well in last year’s election, Corbyn is the new, improved, exciting special offer in British politics.

In Peter Kellner’s analysis for YouGov of people who voted differently in the 2015 and 2017 elections, Labour was the most popular destination for defecting Lib Dems, non-voting Remainers, Greens and those too young to vote the first time.

And it will probably get worse for the Lib Dems. When we leave the EU, almost certainly in 14 months’ time, they won’t even have “Stop Brexit” as their unique selling proposition. Between the SDP-Liberal surge of 1981-82 and the Cleggmania of 2010 they were in the centre-ground wilderness for 28 years. Perhaps in 2038 the Lib Dems will once again benefit from the thrill of the new.

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