A couple of years ago, in the wake of the 2017 general election, I wrote a book called “Apocalypse Delayed: Why the Left are Still in Trouble” which advanced a theory about the Labour Party that is about to be tested, namely that they would lose, again. I also wrote about the woes of the Lib Dems, devoting a whole chapter to this subject. Amongst the problems I identified as afflicting the party, one was a desperation to get the left-wing vote back; the voters they had lost when the party went into government with the Tories in 2010. I said at the time that the prime market for Lib Dems votes was disaffected Tory voters, people who had voted Tory in 2010 and 2015 but who liked the coalition government and did not like the Conservative Party morphing into the Brexit Party. I said that these people would vote for the Lib Dems if the pitch was right; further, that these were the types of people who lived in almost all of the Liberal Democrats’ target seats in large numbers.
I said that the left wouldn’t forgive the Lib Dems inside of a generation. This looked to be on shaky ground when many centre-left voters not only voted Lib Dem in the EU elections, but openly campaigned for the party. I wondered if I had got it wrong. This election campaign has shown I was more correct on this point than I wish I was. I have seen my social media timelines filled with people who six months ago had pictures of themselves delivering Lib Dem leaflets now saying that they “hate” the Lib Dems. This is what is powering the “vote tactically” drive that is doomed to failure: the Lib Dems are only good to these people as some sort of cog in a “progressive alliance” that will propel Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10. They cannot understand why the Lib Dems refuse to play ball, continuously saying they will not put Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10 under any circumstances.
The Lib Dems came out of the gates in this general election campaign with a very, very Lib Demy approach. “Build a Better Future” and how the Lib Dems are gunning for a majority. I have always said that the Lib Dems lack of ambition was unfortunate, yet there is a difference between ambition and fantasy. Many people lent the Lib Dems a vote in May; lots of them would do it again, if they were convinced in the right way. The Lib Dems running an insular campaign that is semi-presidential was never the way to go. Thankfully, I think they may have realised this with enough time to turn the ship around.
Hinting that if push came to shove they would essentially support a Tory minority government in return for a second referendum will annoy a lot of lefties. There will be tons of people on social media telling you that they were all set to vote Lib Dem, but now they cannot. I’ve seen this all before; these people wouldn’t have voted Lib Dem in the end anyhow. They never do in a general election, when it really matters, which is why the party almost always does worse than expected. Saying they will act as a bar to Boris Johnson going mad and doing anything stupid while preventing Jeremy Corbyn from becoming prime minister is the Lib Dems best possible campaigning position, however hard that might be for many on the centre-left to accept.
The truth is, there are two ways this election campaign is going to finish. Either with a Tory majority or with the Tories short by a few seats. If the latter happens, stopping Brexit is still in the air. The only way the latter happens is if the Lib Dems win enough seats off of the Tories. In order to do that, they need to convince voters in these target seats not to vote Tory but to vote Lib Dem. They need to convince this cohort that voting Lib Dem is not going to backfire and put Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10, because if they feel a vote for the Lib Dems risks this happening, they won’t vote for the Liberal Democrats.
The greatest irony of the 2019 general election is that by doing the thing that lefty Remainers want least, the propping up of a Boris Johnson government, the Lib Dems might achieve the thing they supposedly want most of all, the halting of Brexit.