Friday 22 November 2019

Liberal Democrats Need to Regather

I watched the two hours of four leaders meeting an audience. Now, to be clear, I am Liberal Democrat and support the revoke policy. But there is no doubt that the worst performance on that programme was that of Jo Swinson. More than that, I could see it coming. It was coming because Corbyn was matter of fact and played a straight bat, and then Nicola Sturgeon showed her skill derived from being First Minister, answering questions and even creating some room for some teasers about what Corbyn would and would not expect if ending austerity and promoting the public sector was his priority. I could foresee Johnson in some trouble as well, which he was but then had cheering supporters.

Jo Swinson will not get this policy understood if she doesn't do a Jonathan Sumption (the ex-Supreme Court Judge) and point out that a referendum is no more than an opinion snapshot and is not a part of the British Constitution, that no government or House of Commons can bind another, and a General Election is the opportunity for a party to make its manifesto promise. Instead, she was forced on to the back foot.

But her other weakness is her voting record in the coalition, for which the Liberal Democrats will get punished. For that she should promote government discipline, and contrast it with what has been missing this last three years, and that arguments were made in government, agreed, and then delivered. She can say a lot was regretted, but the necessity was for certainty in government at a difficult time. Failure to say this makes her look like a charlatan - and she looked like a charlatan in the programme.

Visuals matter, and Johnson didn't look good, but his waffles and defensiveness was not good either. The cheers of the crowd did not bail him out. The main result of his appearance was not his policies but the dodginess of his character and how he expresses himself.

There is no doubt, therefore, that Jeremy Corbyn continues to have a good General Election. He did it last time in 2017 through rallies and 'momentum' (to use a word) but now he is doing it by having a strong policy thrust. The Liberal Democrats manifesto launch was overshadowed by other news.

To describe The Tories and Brexit Party as having a 'stitch up' is to open the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru to the same charge. The reason Swinson as less likely to be a PM is not the Brexit Party retreat but lack of impact of the Liberal Democrat campaign.

I receive many Liberal Democrat emails, but they cannot deny that they are having a rough election so far. They need not to change the revoke policy, but change how it is defended and where the second referendum policy fits into that. It is the case that a Liberal Democrat majority government would be such a seismic change that it would be the equivalent of a second referendum.

I'm not over worried at this point. That Labour is doing much better helps defend it against shirnkage, and it doesn't follow that the Liberal Democrats are less able to take Tory votes. Towards the end, Swinson made that point quite well. (She also made the anti-semitism accusation over Labour well.) So the result of the present moment could be better in terms of avoiding a Tory majority. But the Liberal Democrats need to gather round and sort this out fast; it needs something of a relaunch without it quite being a relaunch.

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