With Ed Davey’s ascension to the leadership of the Liberal Democrats comes the question of what the party’s exact position on Brexit should be from here on out. Clearly, the Lib Dems are not in any danger of becoming some pro-Brexit outfit; yet there is still some doubt as to what the yellows should do with this subject. Everyone in and around the Lib Dems feels burned by the revoke policy and some wonder whether it’s time to just stop talking about Brexit altogether.
I think doing so would be a mistake. The Lib Dems need easy to understand points of differentiation with the two main parties that aren’t alien to most voters. Being “more green” isn’t going to cut it; going on about electoral reform will certainly not demonstrate that the Lib Dems are “listening”, as Davey put it in his acceptance speech. I think there are only two things the Lib Dems can do to make themselves stand out. One is their stance on Brexit – but to be clear, it has to be handled in a very different way than it has up until now, which I will elaborate on in a moment. The other is pro-business positioning. What’s great here is that those two things are easily combinable. Get the mixture right and the Lib Dems have a chance to be relevant again. Yet I need to stress here that it will be tough and require an ability to think outside of the box not seen in the party for several years.
I’ll start with being pro-business because it’s easier to talk about Brexit positioning once that’s out of the way. By being pro-business, I do not mean being against any forms of social democracy or thinking any and all regulation is bad or that corporation tax should be abolished. To think that being pro-business must entail these things just demonstrates that you don’t know anything about business. Since the end of the Coalition period, the Lib Dems keep saying they are the most pro-business party without having any actual policies to which businesses would respond positively. I won’t take the time to go into what pro-business policies would be good for the Liberal Democrats to adopt here – that would require a whole other, long article, one I will write someday soon – but they need to get the business community taking them seriously. Again, to stress, this will be very difficult and may not even be possible after the monumental screw ups of the last year or so. But if the party can’t pull this off, I don’t know where it has to go.
Being pro-business would allow the Lib Dems to adopt an angle on Brexit that might work for them much better than any of the other approaches on the topic to date. During the 2016-2019 period, anti-Brexit sentiment was almost always expressed in the most left-wing way possible, by pretty much all pro-European voices. It was about holding hands around the blue and gold flag, singing “Kumbaya” and hoping for a socialist wonderland to emerge from Euro federalism. I’m exaggerating here for effect, but it’s striking how little hyperbole I am having to utilise in that description. The Lib Dems talking instead about the effect of Brexit on both businesses and their employees (i.e. everyone who isn’t a child, a pensioner or unemployed in the country) as it unfolds in real time could be very effective. It’s about having something to say on Brexit that makes life difficult for the Tories; something that isolates them from some vital part of their base, such as the business community.
Business has mostly been abandoned by the Conservatives since the EU referendum came and went. The Tory attitude has been “We’re the only game in town, so who else are you going to support?” With a Corbynite Labour Party and a Liberal Democrat party trying unsuccessfully to pretend they were never in government with the Tories, this has worked. Unless a party comes along and threatens their business base, the Conservatives will be able to continue playing this game forever. Starmer’s Labour I suspect will try to win over the business community at some point in earnest; ironic given Lib Dem activists moan about the legacy of the Coalition all the time, here’s where the supposed baggage of that government becomes a plus for the Lib Dems, particularly over Labour.
Often when I’ve said the Lib Dems could stand to be a little more centre-right in some areas, I’ve got back that this supposedly means that I’m saying the Lib Dems should “become the Tories”. But I have never said anything of the kind. What I’m trying to communicate is that the Lib Dems should be trying to steal political geography that the Conservative Party has abandoned while remaining a liberal party. If the Tories have turned their backs on business, demonstrate that there is an alternative. A level-headed, Brexit-regretting, pro-business, pro-aspiration Lib Dem party could fill this void if its pitch was convincing enough, i.e. if it was clear the party really meant what it was saying.
I will conclude by saying I don’t really expect any of this to happen. Even with Ed getting the nod over Layla, I still worry the Lib Dems have still gone way too far down the “let’s pretend the last fifteen years didn’t happen (particularly the Coalition) and protest the Iraq War again” road to come back to sanity. But I’ll only say this to Lib Dem activists who want to kick the Tories out of office: whether that happens or not may come down to the Lib Dems being appealing enough to people who live in key seats and have voted Tory the last few elections opting to vote Lib Dem next time round. There are several ways what happens to the Lib Dems may not be that vital in the end – Labour could become so popular and poll so high that like 1997, they don’t need the Lib Dems. Yet if you’re in the Liberal Democrats and hoping the party gets to be part of some Keir Starmer led government, it fails me how you cannot see that being a carbon copy of Starmer’s Labour with some Green-esque quirks thrown in will not work. Unless the Lib Dems can gets votes from Tory-leaning voters, they will fail as badly at the next election as they have at the last three general elections.
I have a book out now called “Politics is Murder”. It follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. There is also a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters thrown into the mix while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
Also: there is a subplot around the government trying to built a stupid bridge, which now seems a charming echo of a more innocent time!