What threat do the Liberal Democrats pose to the Conservatives? Two years ago, this question could have been brushed aside as someone trying to cause mischief. In the 2015 election, the Lib Dems lost 49 seats, a result ‘immeasurably more crushing and unkind’ than expected. At PMQs last year, Theresa May mocked Tim Farron’s plight as she jeered that her party is ‘a little bit bigger than his is’ — at 330 MPs to nine.
However, the EU referendum result has seen a change in fortunes for Farron’s once beleaguered party. As the largest — and loudest — unashamedly pro-EU party, the Lib Dems have been cleaning up of late in by-elections (and are expected to do the same in the local council elections) by appealing to the 48pc. This combined with an efficient (and at times witty) press operation that puts Labour to shame means that the party is beginning to emerge as a more effective opposition.
Much has been made of the damage the Lib Dem surge could cause Labour — in January alone the party attracted 2000 new members who cited Corbyn or the ‘state of Labour’ as the reason they were joining. But there’s reason to believe they could also present Theresa May with a headache. After all, in 2015, 27 of the seats the party lost turned blue.
It’s still hard to see how the Lib Dems could return to the 57 seats they won in 2010 (after all, if the EU referendum had been conducted under first-past-the-post, Leave would have won with a 192 majority). But last week it was revealed that Lynton Crosby — the Tory election strategist — warned May she could lose up to 30 seats to the party in an early election. These seats are expected to mainly consist of the ones the Tories took off them at the last election. The Conservatives look particularly vulnerable in Remain constituencies across London — with Zac Goldsmith’s defeat in the Richmond by-election worrying many Conservative MPs.
The party membership, too, points to such a problem. The membership now sits at 87,000 — the highest it’s been in over two decades. 58,500 members have joined since the election — mainly over Europe. Lib Dem sources say around 40pc are former Tory supporters. With the EU frequently cited as a motivating factor, May has a challenge ahead trying to please both Tory Brexiteers and Tory/Lib Dem swing voters with the same Brexit deal. The fact that Remain Tory Anna Soubry says she would be open to joining a new centrist liberal party suggests May is already failing to do this.
There is still reason to believe May would win a majority in an election. By 2020 the Brexit deal will have been done and some Tories hope that once it is a reality, even Tories who voted Remain will be reluctant to cause more instability by backing a party that wants a second referendum. Besides any loss of seats to the Liberal Democrats could be offset by gains in Labour heartlands — the Copeland result showed this is possible.
Either way, May’s decision to mock Farron over the size of his party — all nine MPs and counting — looks set to come back to haunt her. No, the Lib Dems won’t ever rival the Conservative party in size. Yes, they could still prove to be a thorn in the Prime Minister’s side.