Political reality has made the Lib Dems the Remain party, and brought a new Brexit referendum closer

The campaign for a second vote on leaving the EU has galvanised millions – now let’s bring that energy to the ballot box

Ed Davey
Thursday 23 May 2019 12:47
European elections: The key parties profiled

What do commentator Matthew Parris, former head of the civil service Lord Gus O’Donnell and actor, LGBT rights activist and Labour peer Michael Cashman have in common? Yesterday, they all came out in support of the Liberal Democrats. They were joined, incidentally, by the Evening Standard (editor one George Osborne).

This represents a remarkable resurgence for the Liberal Democrats. Across the spectrum there is a recognition that if the Brexit Party is your foe, the Liberal Democrats are your friend. In the EU elections today we are clearly the strongest voice for those who feel their home lies in the European family. This is reflected in the magnanimous and thoughtful suggestion of Heidi Allen, interim leader of Change UK, that supporters of her party should consider voting Liberal Democrat as the strongest challengers to Nigel Farage.

For this was Allen’s important insight: that whatever you think of party politics, Brexit will be decided by political parties. And with polls putting the Liberal Democrats ahead of a hard Brexit Tory party and an absent without leave Labour Party, we are now the unrivalled party of Remain.

If Brexit has a positive – and believe me, I struggle to find any – it is that it is politicising millions. Marching for a people’s vote, it was clear that for many fine souls it was their first engagement with politics, bar perhaps marking a cross at election time. Suddenly huge swathes of the country realise that far from being all the same, politicians are actually scarily different. Assumptions that you need a functioning economy or that Britain is enriched by immigration or that the EU is a force for social and environmental good are no longer always believed, at least not by the prime minister or leader of the opposition.

People have started to realise that politics isn’t simply something that has to be done to them, but is something they can shape. This is as empowering as it is exciting. But some have, understandably, been reticent about backing a political party and have channelled their activities through protest groups.

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And while the Campaign for a People’s Vote and Best for Britain are hugely well intentioned, I would simply say that if you want parties to vote against Brexit, you need to vote for them – and help them. These campaign groups deserve huge credit for joining us in mobilising popular opinion. But the People’s Vote campaign has consistently praised Labour for supposedly edging, tortoise like, against Brexit, even though its leader has scarcely found much to like in Europe since about the time of the Red Army.

The leader of Best for Britain, meanwhile, is on leave seeking election for Labour and apparently defending Corbyn: “Personally, I’m very, very committed to Labour’s approach of bringing the two sides together.” Laudable, but our divided nation won’t re-unite round fudge if Labour enables a hard Brexit laying economic waste to the weakest.

If Labour won’t take on the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats will. Rather than basking in media faux shock that Andrea Leadsom quit, we simply ask why Theresa May ever allowed those with such fanatically absurd views on Europe in her cabinet (just how weak can a government be to find itself “fatally weakened” by the departure of such figures?). And how, with job losses rising at terrifying speed, can government and opposition conspire (by incompetence or design) to drag us towards an even more reckless Brexit?

This busted government has one card left to play: it could call, without equivocation, a vote on the deal. How long will it take May (or her successor) to realise this increasingly obvious truth? That the only way to resolve the parliamentary impasse is to give the people the final say.

What is clear is that a strong showing for the Liberal Democrats in these European elections will bring that moment closer.

Ed Davey is the Lib Dem MP for Kingston and Surbiton

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