Written off, ignored, and beleaguered: the Liberal Democrats may have recovered, just, from their immediate post-coalition collapse in 2015, but they remain something of a spent and diminished force as they gather for their spring conference in Southport. It is a charming though slightly poignant choice: Southport was a seat the Lib Dems held from 1997 until last year, when they lost it to the Conservatives and they were pushed into third place by a resurgent Labour Party. It thus, painfully, symbolises their predicament. With barely a dozen MPs and a poll rating that remains stubbornly in single figures, and only one truly national figure still in the Commons, leader Sir Vince Cable, this guerrilla force struggles to make an impact. Not for 30 years has Britain’s centre party found itself in such a feeble position. The Lib Dems certainly cannot blame the political climate.
Brexit, above all, should have put fire in the party’s belly. Europe is a cause worth fighting for, and one where they can demonstrate a unique record of unity and consistency. Since the 1950s and the very inception of the European project, Liberals and Liberal Democrats have been enthusiastic and virtually unanimous in their support of the “ever closer union”, including joining the euro. Unlike Labour and the Conservatives, who have both veered wildly around the European question, and have usually been badly split on it, the Liberal Democrats are, as ever, self-confident in their own position. While Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May both stick to the commitment to honour the 2016 referendum result, and back Brexit, and both offer an unrealistic “cherrypicking” agenda for what they want from Europe, the Liberal Democrats want Brexit blocked and advocate a further referendum on the final deal. In doing so they share the views of a much more substantial proportion of the electorate than their current support suggests. After all, whereas 17 million people, a record, voted to Leave in 2016, some 16 million voted to Remain, and, outside Scotland and Wales, the Liberal Democrats are the only party that represents such a stance. They have, obviously, failed to scoop the pot.
In the local elections in a few weeks the Liberal Democrats should gain some marginal advantages from the intermittent Tory civil war and the passions aroused by Brexit. In university towns and the more prosperous suburbs the Lib Dems should be able to regain some of their previously impressive representation in local government. Indeed, if they were not to make progress in places such as Richmond upon Thames they really would be facing oblivion. Sir Vince has cottoned on to the fact that EU nationals can automatically vote in local elections, even though they are excluded from electing MPs, and hopes for a further boost from this quirk in electoral law. It will not, though, prove decisive.
Sir Vince’s problem, as his energetic predecessor Tim Farron discovered at the last general election, is that the voters have long since decided that voting Lib Dem is, by and large, a wasted vote, given the paucity of their support. Outside a few identifiable target areas, the Lib Dems have fallen victim to the Corbyn phenomenon. So long as Mr Corbyn still sends the same fuzzy warm signals about the EU as he has since the referendum – and his move to commit to “a” customs union with the EU was a clever move in that direction – he will continue to win a good deal of the pro-EU vote. This, after all, is how he came to deprive Ms May of her overall majority last June. Against Mr Corbyn’s haul of 30 seats, the Liberal Democrats made a net gain on their previous election showing of just four MPs.
Traditionally, a weak and divided Conservative government faced with a left-wing Labour Party spelt an electoral bonanza for the Liberal Democrats. The centre used to thrive when the two large parties vacated the centre ground. The Lib Dems have also benefited at such moments from charismatic leadership from some of Sir Vince’s predecessors. Now in his seventies, albeit with the young and ultramodern Jo Swinson as his deputy, it is not his fault that the party finds itself where it does. Age is not the issue; after all, Sir Vince was a major asset in the 2010 election when he was a mere sixtysomething. It is simply that Mr Corbyn, not much younger than Sir Vince, has cornered the protest vote and, so far as the Lib Dems’ fortunes are concerned, much too large a proportion of the pro-European vote. Sir Vince remains the best possible leader they’ve got, but neither he nor his party have time on their side to reverse Brexit or make sure they find themselves holding the balance of power after the next election. It will be cloudy and overcast in Southport.