Does Britain still care about Brexit? Even the (Brexit-hating) Lib Dems aren’t sure

LONDON — Fighting Brexit was once their raison d’etre.

Now Britain’s Liberal Democrats are fighting each other — over whether Europe is still a salient issue for the weary U.K. electorate.

With a general election looming in Britain this year, the centrist Lib Dems are desperate to regain their traditional status as Westminster’s third party — and potential kingmakers in any hung parliament — after nearly a decade in the doldrums.

But with the U.K’s EU departure mourned bitterly by much of the party membership, Leader Ed Davey’s strategy of avoiding talking about Brexit — and focusing instead on critiques of Britain’s ailing public services — has bitterly divided opinion.

Some senior Lib Dems insist that four years after Britain left the EU, the more negative effects of Brexit are starting to resonate with the wider public.

“We are in danger of missing this shift” in public opinion on Brexit, one member told POLITICO, describing Europe as a “vote-winning issue” for the party. 

“We have to roll the dice,” they added. “Playing safe won’t get us anywhere.”

That member was one of 30 prominent Lib Dems who signed a letter to the Guardian in November accusing Davey of “swerving” the opportunity to campaign more on Europe. One of those who signed, Sarah Ludford, a Lib Dem peer, was subsequently sacked as the party’s Europe spokesperson. 

Boring on about Brexit

Other party big-hitters have pushed back hard, however, insisting that talking endlessly about the EU has not served the Lib Dems well in the past.

“We ate humble pie” is how Lib Dem MP Richard Foord describes the aftermath of the last U.K. general election, in 2019, when the party campaigned almost exclusively on a policy of blocking Brexit — and was rewarded with just 11 seats in the 650-strong British parliament.

“If you look back to 2019, there was a little bit of hubris. There was talk at times of us winning tens and tens of seats, maybe even into the three figures,” Foord said. “I think that was, on reflection, mistaken.”

Liberal Democrat President Mark Pack said focus groups and canvassing show “there is a huge exhaustion still about all of those years of politics being dominated by Brexit.”

Other party big-hitters have pushed back hard, however, insisting that talking endlessly about the EU has not served the Lib Dems well in the past | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Rather than Brexit, party strategists are now prioritizing doorstep issues in their target constituencies, such as the rising cost of living and Britain’s faltering National Health Service.

“Our strategy is very firmly based on going out, talking to people, engaging with people on the issues they care about,” said one party official. 

“You respect the electorate by listening to them, and taking on board what they’re experiencing,” added Lib Dem peer and former MP Susan Kramer.

Some party figures feel internal debate over the best course is healthy. 

“We’re a political party, not a cult, and I wouldn’t expect everyone to agree with the strategy,” said one MP granted, like others in this piece, anonymity to speak candidly about internal debates.

“This is the Lib Dems, right? There are always people saying that the party should be more radical on these things,” a former Lib Dem special adviser added.

Taking on the Tories

The Liberal Democrats’ prospects of a revival — they held a whopping 62 seats back in 2005, and 57 when they fatefully entered a coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010 — rest almost entirely upon beating the Tories in affluent parts of southern England dubbed the “Blue Wall.”

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Their hopes have been raised by the Tories’ disastrous slump in national opinion polls, and a run of eye-catching local council and by-election victories in traditional Conservative areas.

Shaun Macdonald, Lib Dem leader of Surrey Heath Borough Council — which the party gained last year — said the Conservatives are bleeding voters across their heartland areas.

“We have seen the momentum by taking control of the council, by the response on the doorsteps that nowhere is safe for the Conservatives anymore,” he said. 

In part, Davey and his team say, that means focusing on local hot-button issues about public services.

But party strategists also believe the Tory government’s draconian rhetoric on immigration — and particularly its divisive plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda — could be a vote winner for the Lib Dems in parts of the socially-liberal South. 

“People who are relatively soft Conservative voters … are really appalled at the rhetoric and the policy,” said Young Liberals Chair Janey Little. 

Monica Harding, the Liberal Democrat candidate in Esher and Walton in Surrey — another Blue Wall seat — agreed. “[Voters here] know … there needs to be a certain level of immigration in order to provide jobs in the NHS and for care workers,” she said. “Many people said to me that they hadn’t moved away from the Conservative Party, the Conservative Party had moved away from them.” 

Thanks but no thanks

For most Lib Dems, dreams of a Westminster revival do not, however, extend to a wish to return to formal government in partnership with one of the two main parties. 

For most Lib Dems, dreams of a Westminster revival do not, however, extend to a wish to return to formal government in partnership with one of the two main parties | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The party’s 2010 to 2015 coalition with the Tories ended disastrously for the smaller Lib Dems, who were hammered in the polls by voters outraged at the compromises they had been forced to make in government.

“[The coalition] was very good for the country but very bad for the party,” said Vince Cable, a Lib Dem Cabinet minister in the coalition who lost his seat in the 2015 rout.

“The party certainly went into it with an open mind about working with Labour, working with the Conservatives — I don’t think that’s quite the same now.”

The former Lib Dem special adviser quoted above agrees there is little appetite for a coalition re-run. 

“The Liberal Democrats are not going to go into an arrangement that involves propping up a Conservative government in any way, shape or form,” they said, while adding: “You don’t necessarily need to be in a formal coalition to be able to have influence.”

Authentic Ed

As debates about strategy continue, questions remain about leader Ed Davey’s own position in the campaign, after his public standing was damaged by a headline-grabbing (though historic) scandal involving the U.K. postal service.

But with modern political campaigns focused almost exclusively on party leaders, the Lib Dems have little choice but to put theirs front and center in 2024.

“You’re lucky if people have heard of the leader of the Lib Dems,” said the former special adviser quoted above. “You’ve almost got to embrace the fact that it’s all going to be about you.”

“I would encourage him to be bold and just hold our core values,” the MP quoted anonymously earlier added.

Those values seem unlikely to extend to campaigning on Brexit — for the foreseeable future, at least.