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What are the Liberal Democrats for?

12 April 2014

10:06 AM

12 April 2014

10:06 AM

Of the three main parties, none is clearer about how they intend to fight the next election than the Liberal Democrats. Their message will be that they’ll make the Tories be fair and Labour economically responsible. Their ground game will fight for every inch in the seats they hold but effectively withdraw from the rest of the country. I suspect that this strategy will yield the Liberal Democrats around 40 seats and, if there’s another hung parliament, the balance of power again.

But this near-term strategic certainty obscures a bigger question, what are the Liberal Democrats for? This is a question that Jeremy Browne, the former Lib Dem minister, is trying to answer in his new book.

Browne is a liberal and he expected to flourish under the leadership of Nick Clegg, who is from the Liberal rather than the Social Democrat wing of the party. But, instead, he got the sack.

Browne has concluded, as he makes clear in his Times interview this morning, that the problem is Clegg feels the need to meet his internal critics half-way. His response: to set out his stall as a full throttle liberal and dare the party to back him. It’s clear that Browne will run in any post-Clegg leadership contest.

Clegg’s confidants think this strategy is simply unrealistic. Their view is that Clegg is as classically liberal as you can be and still win a Lib Dem leadership contest. But Browne is banking on three things. First, he thinks that government has changed the Liberal Democrats. Left-wing members have left the party to be replaced by younger, more classical liberals. Second, that conviction politics is back—that while people might not agree with him there’ll be energised by the prospect of being led by someone who is unapologetic about what they believe. Third, that the fudge and budge middle of the party will have several candidates in a leadership contest, enabling Browne to run round them.

Browne’s approach might well bomb. But it is clear that he intends to be a standard-bearer for liberalism in the party, which is why he won’t defect to the Tories. Expect to hear a lot more from him in the coming months.

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