Sarah Olney following her victory in the Richmond Park by-election. Carl Court/Getty Images
The Liberal Democrats are an unusual party. They gain support largely by latching onto a variety of different single-issue campaigns, from proportional representation to (in times gone by) abolishing tuition fees. This worked brilliantly until they found themselves in a coalition government with David Cameron, and they failed to deliver on the many commitments they’d made. Unsurprisingly, their support base suddenly melted away.
In this deeply cynical tradition, the Lib Dems have placed themselves firmly at the forefront of the anti-Brexit movement. They hope to cream off voters of all political stripes who want to ignore or overturn the Referendum result, and keep us in the EU. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Corbynite or a Cameroon – if you hate Brexit, you’re welcome in the Lib Dems’ big tent.
The Lib Dems have now taken their fight to Parliament, opposing the Article 50 Bill, and proposing a raft of amendments to legislation in both the Commons and Lords. In a comical twist, they even tried – unsuccessfully – to bring beds into the House of Lords in order to ensure maximum turnout from their disproportionately large cohort of peers. They may try similar antics when the Great Repeal Bill comes before Parliament.
Needless to say, this disregard for the democratic will of the people is not what you would expect from a party which calls itself the Liberal Democrats. Even for those who disagree with Brexit, true democrats would at least support the will of the people being carried out.
To underline how absurd and anti-democratic the Lib Dems’ stance is, imagine after a General Election the defeated Prime Minister simply refusing to step down. Imagine them claiming the people had made a terrible mistake, insisting the winning party had won on a “vague” platform of “lies”, and demanding a repeat of the vote. This, stunningly, is essentially the policy of the party who call themselves democrats.
The received wisdom of the media, however, is regardless of whether their anti-Brexit crusade is cynical or not, it is good for them politically. It certainly won them the by-election in the Remain stronghold of Richmond Park, unseating Zac Goldsmith, a Brexiteer who campaigned on a single-issue anti-Heathrow expansion ticket.
The Lib Dems have since posted slightly improved results in by-elections in Brexit-supporting areas like Stoke and Copeland, as well as in local by-elections across the country. Their performance in local by-elections has been similarly improved across the country, although this trend began soon after the General Election.
However, the overall picture for the Lib Dems is still quite bleak. They’re only polling around 11%, just below UKIP, and some polls have them unmoved from the 8% of the vote they got in the last General Election.
There are only a handful of seats where this sort of slight increase in their share of the vote would make them competitive. Not all of those are Remain strongholds, and many have Tory MPs who it would be difficult to dislodge if the Conservatives maintain their current popularity. Rumours of a Lib Dem revival are, therefore, much exaggerated.
They may, of course, struggle to make even these modest gains at the next General Election. Right now, we are less than a year down the line from the Referendum, and emotions are still riding high. How many of those convinced to vote Lib Dem by their anti-Brexit stance will still be on Team Farron in 2020, when Brexit will most likely have already happened?
This is the core problem the Li bDems have to face. For all the headlines, in reality they are irrelevant. Voters in Richmond Park elected Sarah Olney after a campaign built around the idea of electing a Lib Dem as a way of deterring Theresa May from pursuing a ‘hard’ Brexit.
Olney vanished from the public eye within hours of being elected after a disastrous radio interview, and 4 months down the line, the Government is committed to leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. Article 50 is on the verge of being triggered, with almost all the Lib Dems’ objections being steamrollered in both the Commons and Lords by Tory and Labour votes. The Richmond Revolt has fizzled out to nothing.
A decade ago, the Lib Dems might have been a protest vote, but then they were credible – a party with several dozen MPs and running above 20% in the polls. There was always the possibility they could put your single issue on the political map, and possibly force it through in a coalition agreement.
Today they have only 9 MPs, 10% support on a good day, and a record of failing to deliver on people’s single issues. Now they are competing against a range of other, less ‘tainted’ protest vote options (the Greens, the SNP). The same cynical tactics just won’t work for the Lib Dems at the moment.
As we get Britain out of the EU, the Lib Dems’ anti-Brexit crusade will continue to embarrass them and expose their irrelevance as a protest party. Trying in vain to block Brexit will not secure their long-term future. Instead, they should accept Brexit will happen, and prepare for how they can carve out a niche for themselves in the post-Brexit political landscape.
Joseph Hackett works for the cross-party group Get Britain Out.