The Liberal Democrats have cemented their credentials as a fully-fledged Remain party this afternoon, after members at their conference in Bournemouth voted to make revoking Article 50 and cancelling Brexit their official party policy.
The overwhelming majority of Lib Dem members at the conference voted to pass a motion, which called for the party to immediately revoke Article 50 if they win a majority at the next election. The motion reaffirms the party’s support for a second referendum, but also adds a pledge to stop Brexit altogether, committing to:
‘Revoke Article 50 if the House of Commons has not passed a resolution approving the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement one week ahead of the date on which the UK is due to leave the EU.’
The speeches in support of the policy left no doubt as to why the Lib Dems are moving towards a more hardline Remain position now. The party wants to be as clear to voters as possible ahead of a general election that they are the ‘Stop Brexit’ party, and to contrast their simple message of revoking Article 50 with Labour’s convoluted position on a second referendum. The Liberal Democrats believe that their success in the recent European elections in May, was due to their decision to adopt the rather direct message, ‘Bollocks to Brexit’, as their campaign slogan. For many in the room, today’s vote was the natural evolution of this position. The change in policy also means that if Labour backs Remain less ambiguously in future, the Lib Dems can still sell themselves to voters as the standard-bearer for staying in the EU.
By promising to revoke Article 50, rather than drag out the Brexit process with a second referendum, the Lib Dems will also be hoping to win over voters who simply want Brexit to be over, and don’t mind how or if Britain actually leaves. The new Lib Dem MP Chuka Umunna made this case in his speech in support of the revoke motion. After first taking a dig at Labour’s ‘jobs first Brexit’ – which he said did not exist – the former Labour MP made a pitch to voters sick of the Brexit debate and said that revoking Article 50 would ‘stop this national embarrassment’ and allow the country to focus on other things. Ironically, the Lib Dems’ call to scrap Brexit may be the polar opposite of Boris Johnson’s pledge to take Britain out of the EU ‘do or die’, but both electoral slogans are trying to win over voters who simply want the national conversation to move on.
That said, despite the policy’s aims, it’s unlikely to have much practical effect. As the motion made clear later in the text, the Lib Dems have only promised to revoke Article 50 if they win a majority at the next election – an altogether unlikely prospect. This leaves the door open for Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson to prop up a Labour caretaker government which promises to call for a second referendum with Remain on the ballot paper.
There could be risks for the party, however, if it does scrap its revocation pledge later. One Sunderland councillor speaking against the motion, reminded his fellow members that their party had almost been wiped out in the Nick Clegg era when its MPs broke an electoral promise to not raise tuition fees.
Jo Swinson’s gamble now is that if she does have to drop her promise to revoke Article 50 after the next election, her party’s Remain voters will be sated with the chance to fight a referendum against Brexit instead.