Float like a butterfly, sting like a...butterfly?
The ‘Lib Dem Fightback’ was promised three years ago but it never materialised. Is the party about to turn a corner and experience an upturn in fortunes?
It is fair to say that the Liberal Democrats are currently going through one of the most difficult patches in the party’s history. Coming off the back of a first foray into government, was a meteoric slump in the 2015 general election that left the parliamentary party with a mere 8 MPs. Then the so-called ‘fightback’ began, didn’t it?
Certainly, the ship has been steadied since Vince Cable took over, quelling the media turmoil that had surrounded Tim Farron. Some ground has been reclaimed by Farron (regaining 4 parliamentary seats in last year’s snap election) but this falls far short of the wholesale gains that are needed to have a strong voice in parliament. The lack of representation has reduced the party to one flagship policy, paraded around by the media as anti-Brexit which is a crying shame for such a tour de force that was making government policy as recently as a few years ago.
On the topic of Brexit, the Conservative and Labour leaderships feel pained to repeat that there will be no second referendum, because the public have already decided. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are portrayed as some kind of whinging toddler asking its mother why it can’t have an ice-cream only to be told ‘because you’ve already had one before’. Apparently, being pro-EU is no longer popular because the British public refuse to admit that they might have been wrong and are attempting to save face. Clearly, there is too much national pride which appears to block out all common sense.
I see it like this… David Cameron negotiated a revised deal with the European Union, we declined and decided to leave, based upon an array of dubious facts presented by both sides. First of all, there are the hard-line Brexiteers, intent on a delivering a hard Brexit that would mean an end to the freedom of movement of goods and services. Such a move would put up barriers to the £553.8 billion of exports and imports that, according to the Office for National Statistics, flowed between the UK and EU in 2016. Then we have a group of moderate Conservatives and the indecisive Labour party calling for some form of soft-Brexit. This is the belief that the country would be better off to sacrifice some of the sovereignty that the public demanded in the referendum, whilst still contributing to the EU budget (and getting no rebate) for access to the single market. In addition, we would lose our seat within the European Council system, meaning that we would have no further influence on any future trade deals that the EU might make.
Isn’t it just better to stay and keep the benefits we’ve come to take for granted?
Is it that we cannot admit that the country might have just got it wrong for once?
Yet, for me, there is still hope. If last week’s local council elections in England were anything to go by Vince Cable’s party have a chance of becoming relevant again and throwing a spanner in the works of Brexit. Liberal Democrat gains totalled 75 seats and control of 4 more councils while the UKIP vote collapsed, losing them 123 councillors. These results put moderate politics back in the spotlight, regardless of the fact that the newly gained councils were in the party’s previous strongholds and all being within pro-Europe areas. Yes, I grant you councillors can’t change national politics but they do show growing support for the party, forcing national new bulletins to acknowledge their existence. Now more than ever media air-time is what the Liberal Democrats need and this has been achieved through the use of the clunky but seemingly effective soundbite ‘Exit from Brexit’. Anyway, there is another secret weapon up Mr. Cable’s sleeve; the 98 Lib Dem peers sat in the House of Lords. Last Monday the Lords struck a blow to Theresa May’s cabinet by setting out the timeline for Parliament to vote on the final Brexit deal by ensuring that MPs are consulted prior to the European Parliament voting on any draft withdrawal agreement; effectively nulling the potential of a ‘no deal’ scenario. This could potentially be crippling to the Conservatives who have mutiny in the ranks and now rely on the DUP as a buttress following the needless evaporation of the Tory majority at the ballot boxes last year. It nearly became double trouble as a Lib Dem motion that would demand a second referendum on Brexit or no Brexit at all, fell short by 58 votes. Next time, May may not be so lucky.
In short, the aggrieved 48% of the 2016 Brexit referendum could still have the last laugh, and the Lib Dems could still get their metaphorical ice-cream. If so, the party might find itself back in the fray when the next general election rears its ugly head. However, this time they must make sure they capitalise on success, not throw it away.
Tobias is an International Business student at the University of Salford and Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK), Finland. He is also a member of the Liberal Democrats.