After Brexit What Do the Liberal Democrats Have Left to Stand For?

Following Tuesday night’s defeat of the Third Reading of Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill, a general election seems inevitable. In the eyes of their opponents, the 2017 General Election eradicated the Tories’ mandate to take Britain out of the EU without a deal, if necessary. Theresa May’s failure to strike a deal with Brussels has left Brexit paralysed. Opposition parties have used this to their advantage to frustrate, or even to try and cancel, the UK’s EU exit. Boris’s only option now is to win a majority so that he has the numbers in the Commons to approve of his deal or no deal.

The upcoming election will be a battle between the Conservatives, who will be campaigning for their new deal whilst retaining the option of no deal if it is rejected. The Brexit Party will fight to take Britain out of the EU without a deal at all. Labour will be advocating a second referendum on Boris’s deal and the Liberal Democrats will campaign to stop Brexit altogether. The latter would trigger a democratic crisis worse than what this country is experiencing now. Leaving the EU must happen.

The next general election will more than likely be the last one where the Liberal Democrats position themselves as a pro-European party. If a Christmas vote ensures Boris gains the majority he needs for his deal or no deal, Brexit is guaranteed to happen. Once it does, the Liberal Democrats will have no core identity left that distinguishes them from the other parties. Their unique policy positions on the Iraq War, tuition fees and now the EU have been fundamental to their success since the 2005 General Election. Since 2016, their electoral gains demonstrate that the electorate has forgiven them for betraying their tuition fees promise and for forming a coalition with the Tories.

The Liberal Democrats’ current leader, Jo Swinson, will preside over a divided party once Brexit has been delivered. Aside from the EU, their raison d’etre has always been electoral reform. It is unlikely former Tories Dr Sarah Wollaston and Sam Gyimah will support a fresh bid for introducing proportional representation to future British elections considering they originate from a party that is united in its support for First-Past-The-Post. The 2011 AV Referendum proved there was no enthusiasm for electoral reform when voters overwhelmingly rejected the Alternative Vote. The only way they could achieve their long-term goal is by forming a coalition with Labour, but even they are divided on this issue and it is doubtful Swinson would want to prop up a Labour government under its current leadership.

Prior to 2005, the Liberal Democrats positioned themselves to the left of Labour during the Iraq War. This worked to their advantage as they secured 62 seats, the most they have had since 1923. When the Orange Book Liberals took over in 2007 under Nick Clegg, their strategy was to move the party to the right. This cost them five MPs. 

Post-Brexit, Swinson is likely to shift her party rightwards again. During the Coalition years, she scrapped bureaucratic regulations, opposed gender quotas and supported zero-hours contracts. But if a Johnson-led Tory Party monopolises these issues, there could be pressure on her to chase after Labour voters considering Corbyn has pushed his party so far to the left.

The Liberal Democrats are in an unenviable position. Whilst Brexit continues to dominate mainstream politics, they intend to assert themselves as the anti-Brexit party. But once that issue is gone, there is no rallying cry for them anymore. The Greens, the Tories and Labour between them dominate policies on the environment, the economy, health, education, immigration and crime. The Coalition years showed how difficult it is for them to radically reform the unwritten British constitution. After Brexit, who are the Liberal Democrats?