The Curious Incident of the Lib Dem Bird in the Night-time

In The Adventure of Silver Blaze, Inspector Gregory asks whether there is anything to which Sherlock Holmes would like to draw his attention. "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time," he replies. When Gregory comments that the dog did nothing, the great detective responds: "That was the curious incident."

Holmes was famous for regarding his mind as similar to an attic: only having a certain amount of space, he discarded information that cluttered it up. Therefore he had only enough knowledge of currents affairs as would serve his detecting purposes. However, even he - if asked - would note that a feature of this election has been the Lib Dems.

But voters have hardly heard from them, one might say to the sleuth.

That was the curious incident.

During the leader’s debate, Jeremy Corbyn was unprepared, Theresa May was absent; one man had a good night (and the best line of the evening): Lib Dem leader Tim Farron. Hardly anyone cared though. 

So, the game’s afoot.

Compared to the Tory and Labour offerings, the Lib Dem manifesto was a Remainiac’s wet dream

Weeks before the election, a private poll was published that showed the Conservatives losing seats to the Lib Dems in an early poll. With a good result in the Whitney by-election and victory against Zac Goldsmith in Richmond, people started talking about a Lib Dem revival. Brexit had allowed the party a raison d’etre after coalition had tarnished their brand.

#LibDemFightback was given an added impetus when Jeremy Corbyn effectively nodded through May’s Article 50 Bill. Remainers were supposedly angry. For the first time since his election, Labour membership dipped as pro-Europeans cut up their membership cards.

While Labour was confused and paralysed by Brexit, Farron and Nick Clegg - free of David Cameron’s shackles - was passionate in his defence of the EU.

Poll after poll has shown how divided the country is over Brexit. Still only a slender plurality think it in the best interests of the country, some show a sizeable proportion of the country want a second referendum. Theresa May defined her snap election election as one about Brexit; she even singled out the Lib Dems as the party intent on derailing Brexit - all nine of them. That’s free publicity for you.

Despite the omens, the Lib Dems’ campaign got off to a rocky start as Farron was forced onto the defensive about his views on LGBT issues. It turned out to be their highlight. For smaller parties election campaign broadcast rules mean they can punch according to their weight, although they often get forgotten as Labour and Conservatives slog it out. Even a Tory attack on Corbyn’s leadership means the party stays in the headlines. The only thing worse than being talked about, as Oscar Wilde said, is not being talked about.

Compared to the Tory and Labour offerings, the Lib Dem manifesto was a Remainiac’s wet dream. It was pitched firmly at the 48% who did not vote for Brexit.

Corbyn has described the issue of Brexit as “settled” and Labour’s direction of travel is not dissimilar to the Conservatives’: they’ll negotiate for Single Market access but with freedom of movement being a red line, that is effectively ruled out. Meanwhile, the Lib Dem campaign has centred around giving the British people a say on the final deal of the negotiations. The silence echoed in the night-time like the dog's bark.

The election has become a two-way fight

"Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."

The logic of the election was meant to be that while May hoovered up Ukip votes, Labour found itself, thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s unelectability, squeezed by deserting Remainiacs. At the least, the latter has not happened. Corbyn has not run a great campaign but he has done well enough to firm up his base.

The Lib Dem polls numbers remain flat. At best they could have hoped for modest gains but instead they might even underperform their 2015 result when they lost seats to both parties. It is Labour squeezing the Lib Dems.

The election has become a two-way fight: if the polls are right the two main parties combined will secure their biggest share of the vote since 1992. The debate has become, who do you want negotiating Brexit, not should Brexit happen. It’s May versus Corbyn.

The last few years have been dominated by politics and plebiscites. There is the prospect of more with a daily dose of Brexit negotiations and even another referendum on Scottish independence. In that context, yet another referendum looks not so much an enticing, democratic offer as a act of cruelty worthy of Donatien de Sade.

In Silver Blaze, the dog was quiet because there was no intruder for him to bark at. So what would Holmes say about the Liberal Democrats poll silence? Elementary - Come on! You knew that was coming - despite the Brexit election, the Remain vote is not so much anaemic as non-existent.

Curious, huh?

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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