A truly dire night for the Lib Dems. A net loss of one seat and a net loss of one leader. That was not the hoped-for outcome when Jo Swinson took the gamble of agreeing to Boris Johnson’s pre-Christmas election. So what went wrong?
First, this wasn’t so much the Brexit election as ‘The Brexit Deal election’. If Boris Johnson had gone for his Plan A – a snap election in September threatening no-deal – I think the result would have been very different. Plenty of suburban Remain-leaning Conservative seats would have seriously been in play for the Lib Dems. But the double act of Hilary Benn and Dominic Grieve thwarted the Prime Minister, who was instead forced to the negotiating table. The rest, as they say, is history.
His agreement with the EU left the Lib Dems flat-footed, their post-Euro election strategising upended. The party ended up stuck with the controversial policy of Revoke – perhaps justifiable against no-deal, but indefensibly undemocratic once there was a Brexit deal. As a result, Jo Swinson dedicated her first (and last) campaign as leader to arguing that the 2016 referendum mandate be simply ignored.
The Lib Dems’ best chance was to appeal to voters who respond to a sense of fair play, moderation, reasonableness. Revoke made the party look a bit extremist, odd and unrealistic. However, it’s hard to claim that it would have made for a much happier outcome if the Lib Dems had stuck with their policy of a second referendum and further delay. After all, it didn’t do the Labour party much good.
Ultimately, the Lib Dems were the victims of their biggest enemy: a squeeze election. It did for the party in 1992, again in 2015, 2017, and now in 2019 too. The Blair years were the only period in recent history when the party was able to reassure voters it was safe to give the Lib Dems a chance. The depressing truth for the party, then, is that its chances of recovery don’t lie in its own hands – rather the Lib Dems need Labour members to replace Jeremy Corbyn with a moderate and electable leader.
Stephen Tall is a former Lib Dem councillor and editor of Liberal Democrat Voice between 2007 and 2015