In an Italian restaurant on the edge of Chippenham, a bustling Wiltshire market town and a key Lib Dem target, the manager is complaining to me about Brexit. He’s a British citizen, but is worried about staff who aren’t. Running costs are already going up, he says, and he predicts things will get worse. He is not sure who he will vote for in the election, but is interested to hear that one party is opposed to leaving the European Union. He thinks he has heard of them, but he isn’t sure what they stand for. Who are the Lib Dems, exactly?
Tim Farron’s party is supposed to be surging right now, uniquely standing up for the 48 per cent of Britons who found themselves on the wrong side of the referendum result. But instead it is struggling to stay at 10 per cent in the polls, while the Tories have soared to 50 in some surveys. In the locals, the Lib Dems actually lost 28 council seats, and it is rumoured the Conservatives are doing even better on the doorstep than in the data.
So why aren’t the Lib Dems doing better? There are three theories. With just nine MPs, they must work to be taken seriously, not only with voters but with the media, which often covers them as an afterthought. (The Tories won’t make the mistake of allowing a proper television debate this time, which in 2010 sent Nick Clegg rocketing in the polls). The pending destruction of Ukip will release many votes to the Tories, killing Lib Dem hopes all over the map. And, in Farron, the party has a strangely illiberal, uncharismatic leader who is prone to gaffes.
But these challenges are not insurmountable. The Lib Dems have been handed their most promising opportunity in decades. Its potential supporters—centrist, liberal, moderates, are still Britain’s largest political group—and they are no longer absorbed by the two main parties, who have retreated to the left and right, Labour nearly collapsing in the process. A broken pledge on tuition fees which has haunted the party since their coalition years may at last be fading from memory, overshadowed by more recent broken promises, such as the Leave campaign’s £350m a week for the…