Revoking Article 50: Have the Liberal Democrats made a grave strategic miscalculation?

Their new Brexit policy is inconsistent with commitment to electoral reform and risks legitimising a hard exit from the EU

September 16, 2019
Jo Swinson delivers her conference speech. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images
Jo Swinson delivers her conference speech. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

On Sunday the Liberal Democrats changed their policy on Brexit. If the party wins a majority at the next election they will revoke Article 50.

Now that Labour is offering another referendum and might move still further to the Remain side, there was a danger for the Liberal Democrats in failing to have a clear and distinct policy on Brexit. At the 2017 general election YouGov found only 28 per cent of Remain voters correctly identified that the party advocated having another referendum after the negotiations. Awareness of the Lib Dem position has improved. But even after the party’s “Bollocks to Brexit” campaign, as many as a third of voters at the start of September thought that the Liberal Democrats were in favour of some kind of Brexit.

Some have suggested there is a risk that an eye-catching pledge to straightforwardly revoke Article 50 might become a liability in the way the tuition fees pledge became. But the Lib Dems have said they will continue to campaign for another referendum, a more realistic outcome. They will not have breached any promise if they end up voting in parliament for a referendum as the only politically viable option.

There are other risks too. The party may be giving a voice to the 28 per cent who are opposed to Brexit and want to see it reversed. But it might also alienate those Remainers who think there ought to be another referendum. To some, simply revoking Article 50 looks undemocratic.

Specifically, the conference called for the “Liberal Democrats to campaign to Stop Brexit in a General Election, with the election of a Liberal Democrat majority government to be recognised as an unequivocal mandate to revoke Article 50 and for the UK to stay in the EU.”

The logic of the Liberal Democrat position is that winning a majority of seats in the House of Commons would be a democratic mandate. And this leads to the next problem.

On one level, they are right. Suppose the Liberal Democrats did win a bare majority by winning the 326 most Remain seats in Britain. Only 229 constituencies are estimated to have had a majority for Remain at the 2016 referendum. They would have to win a further 97 constituencies where there was a Leave majority. Those include seats with Leave shares of the vote up to an estimated 54 per cent.

To win so many Leave majority seats, as well as all the Remain ones, on a platform of “Stop Brexit” would require convincing very many Leave voters to change their minds on Brexit or mobilising so many who didn’t vote in 2016. Unless there was some extraordinary efficiency in the distribution of the Lib Dem vote and/or party split among Leave voters, the Liberal Democrats would have to secure a comfortable majority of votes to win a bare majority of seats. If they pulled it off they really would have a democratic mandate to revoke Article 50.

But perhaps the main strategic risk that the Liberal Democrats have taken is in accepting the principle that winning a majority in the House of Commons under first-past-the-post constitutes an “unequivocal mandate.”

Tony Blair won a comfortable majority in 2005 on 35 per cent of the vote. It is perfectly plausible that Boris Johnson might win a majority with the 37 per cent of the vote that the Observer’s Opinium poll at the weekend suggests he could command.

If the Tories do win a majority of seats without a majority of votes, let alone a majority of electors, many on the Lib Dem side will want to argue that the Conservatives’ Brexit plans do not command the support of most people.

But Johnson would then be able to quote the Liberal Democrats’ language back to them. He could demand that his majority is “recognised as an unequivocal mandate” for whatever Brexit he campaigned on.

For a party that has long advocated proportional representation, calling for majority governments under first-past-the-post to be recognised as having such mandates is perverse.

Given that the Liberal Democrats’ long-run success would be massively enhanced by electoral reform in the direction of proportionality, legitimising manufactured majorities under FPTP is an act of self-harm. Doubly so when the one party most likely to win a majority at the next election is pursuing the antithesis of your signature policy.

For Jo Swinson, who is strongly opposed to Scottish independence and is now the most prominent party leader from Scotland on the unionist side, legitimising the idea of the SNP claiming a mandate for independence off the back of a Holyrood majority, without another indyref, would seem to triple the trouble the revoke policy might cause her.

One obvious quick fix? The Liberal Democrats should say that they need a majority of votes, as well as seats, to revoke Article 50.

The party could further try to set the same hurdle of a majority of votes for any form of Brexit the government might try to legislate for. But that of course would be somewhat similar to asking for a confirmatory referendum.

At the moment, the Lib Dem policy appears bold and strong, but it is in danger of becoming a major liability.

Read Rafael Behr on the structural tension at the heart of the Lib Dem pitch