You’re Wrong, Vince. A “reverse Ukip” Could Revive the Lib Dems

The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, said Oscar Wilde.

Of course, politicians love being talked about. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, politicians knew they had made it when they they earned a Spitting Image doll. They might not have made headlines but their faces - however grotesquely distorted -  were recognised.

Two years after helping run the country, the Lib Dems are hosting their annual party conference. Tumbleweed has a greater impact. The average man or woman in the street would struggle to hold a conversation about anything that has happened this week in Bournemouth.

They launched a new party political broadcast to introduce their new leader to the nation and that leader claimed he was a potential prime minister. However, derision is not conversation.

That the Lib Dems are struggling is, on the surface, strange: the Brexit referendum gave them, as an unashamedly pro-European party, a purpose; some of the most incisive contributions in the debate came not from the official opposition but former leader, Nick Clegg, who acted as the party’s Brexit spokesperson. Their membership rose and they scored an unlikely by-election win in Richmond that revived memories of past successes that helped build the party into the political force it was until recently.

The election was badly timed for the Lib Dems. They are still tarred with association with the Conservatives. Tim Farron fought a poor campaign where he was dogged by his attitudes to homosexuality. Whereas most observers thought that Labour’s fence-sitting would turn off both sides, Corbyn managed to appeal to both Remainer and Brexiter to win his defeat.

The Lib Dems’ more outspoken Remainism was rewarded with a paltry increase in seats and a vote share that, like a bad soufflé, failed to rise.

The trouble with being the political adult is that it is the children who make all the noise

In his speech on Tuesday, Vince Cable claimed the mantle of the adult in the room. Although he clumsily promised an "exit from Brexit", it was not a clarion call to Remainers; Cable talked about working to stop a hard Brexit. With the government’s slim majority, it is a sensible tactic. Even if party loyalty trumps all else, the opposition parties combined can wear the government down and force it to offer concession to potential rebels to keep them on board.

But the Lib Dems would struggle to gain the affection of grateful Remainers. In the Coalition, they were junior partners; in a parliamentary bunfight, they have less clout than the SNP.

Any victories, even moral, would not add lustre to the Lib Dems. Jeremy Corbyn would scoop the spoils. And even his socialism would not distribute them according to need.

Here there is an element of Tacitus’ motto 'capax imperii nisi imperasset': everyone thought Cable would make a fine leader until he became leader.

The trouble with being the political adult is that it is the children who make all the noise; a third party must fight for attention.

Never have we been so badly governed nor that government so badly opposed; rarely has politics been fought from such extremes. 

Theresa May’s government has one fundamental objective - to deliver Brexit. Here nobody is quite sure what they actually want or how they are going to get what they do not know they want. Time is running out both in terms of the internal politics of the Conservative party and in terms of Brexit negotiations. The risks get higher.

For all the bravura, Jeremy Corbyn is not in the same league as Harold Wilson or Tony Blair.

There should be an opening for the Lib Dems but there is not. Cable’s caution is not going to help them: his promise that his party would not become a “reverse Ukip” was fundamentally misguided. A combination of personality and simplicity of message gave Ukip the referendum it wanted, then the result it craved. They whined til they got what they wanted, as Belle and Sebastian said.

nothing will come from nothing

Paddy Ashdown had his 1p on income tax policy to fund education. Charles Kennedy opposed the Iraq War. Their differing abilities to share their message brought them success.

A pledge to fight for a second referendum, argued with intellectual confidence, would rally Remainers and give his party meaning. People would talk about them - good and bad. With persistence, and some luck, it could make political weather. If Brexit turns disastrous, the man feted for predicting the great crash of 2008, could claim a second vindication. It is something that Cable can promise that Corbyn, balancing his new Brexit and Remain coalition, would struggle to do. Most of all it is something.

Perhaps Cable is scarred by Clegg’s opposition to tuition fees policy that brought his party into government, then led to its electoral collapse. Perhaps he genuinely believes he can be prime minister.

So he has chosen nothing. Unfortunately, nothing will come from nothing.

There is a famous philosophical question: if a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? It is, of course, impossible to answer. The question about what happens to a political party that nobody is listening to or talking about is slightly easier to answer.

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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