The Lib Dem campaign is in trouble. At least, this is becoming the narrative, which during a general election campaign means it is reality. Political pundits are looking at all elements of the Lib Dem campaign and finding fault in every corner. This is standard: in successful campaigns, every element is seen to be genius, even the ones that really were a little dodgy, and every part of an unsuccessful campaign is deemed to be a mistake, even the bits that would have worked if they were inside of a better campaign.
A truism that is developing is that it was a mistake for the Lib Dems to adopt the policy of revoking Article 50. It was too strong and has alienated Remainers who really just wanted another referendum. I think this is false. The revoke Article 50 policy just needed to be part of a much, much better campaign that utilised it properly.
When the Lib Dems decided to take up the revoke policy, there was always going to be a large element of risk involved. The Overton window on possible Brexit outcomes stretched from, on one side, a second referendum with an option to Remain, on the other, leaving the EU with no deal. Revoke was outside of that window. This meant it was going to get push back; it was radical in the context of the Brexit discussion at the time, and it was going to have to be sold to people, hard. It required the Lib Dems, once they had announced the policy, to crawl outside of their comfort zone and defend it.
The way to do this would have been to argue why revoke isn’t in fact all that radical when you look at the reality of the situation we’re faced with. People are sick of Brexit. They want it over, one way or another. The Lib Dems needed to attack Boris’ deal for many reasons, as a centrepiece of their 2019 general election campaign, but one of those reasons was to make sense of the revoke policy. It could have gone like this:
You are faced with a choice at this election. On one hand, you could vote for the Tories and get Boris’ Brexit deal. This would mean in 2020 we would be face with another choice of no deal Brexit or an extension. Brexit wouldn’t be finished – it will be stuck in the same cycle it has been for the past three and a half years. Or you could vote for Labour, who want to go back to the beginning and renegotiate a whole new Brexit deal and then have another referendum on the subject. This will take years. Or you can vote Lib Dem and have Brexit be over the day after the election. Vote Lib Dem to stop the Brexit uncertainty.
The Lib Dems decision not to attack Boris’ deal in any meaningful way is the really baffling thing that political commentators should be jumping on. The nexus of Johnson’s plan to get a majority is to show that he is the only one capable of ending the discussion on Brexit quickly; he is succeeding because no one wants to challenge him on this in an effective and sustained way. The revoke policy could have been used in the context of why Boris’ deal is bad and won’t work the way he says it will. Again, this would have meant the Lib Dems attacking the deal, which they have avoided in a manner that is frankly stunning.
I understand that the revoke policy is destined to be chalked up as a major error by the Lib Dems. It wasn’t – it only seems that way in context. It is only a mistake in the context of the rest of the Lib Dem campaign, which is mostly just one big ball of mistakes anyhow. A better constructed campaign could have made it work to their advantage.