The next challenge for the party is to cut through on issues beyond Brexitby John Curtice / July 24, 2019 / Leave a comment
When on 14th March Vince Cable announced his intention to resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats, the party’s prospects looked fairly bleak. The Lib Dems still showed little sign of rising much above the 7-8 per cent at which they had been stuck in the polls for the last five years or so. At the same time, they faced an apparently significant challenge to their role as Britain’s principal socially liberal but economically centrist force from a new party, Change UK, formed by a prominent group of Conservative and Labour defectors.
But by the time that Jo Swinson accepted the congratulations of her colleagues on her decisive victory over Ed Davey, the outlook for the party had been transformed. It now stands at an average of 18 per cent in polls of Westminster voting intentions, its highest rating since it entered into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. In contrast, Change UK is hardly registering in the polls at all. Indeed, the most prominent of the party’s founders, Chuka Umunna, has since opted to join the Liberal Democrats.
The reason for this transformation is simple: the party has been a beneficiary of the Brexit impasse—and, above all, the European elections that had to be held in May, in the wake of Britain’s failure to leave the EU on 29th March. Even at the time of the English local elections held just three weeks before the European contest, the party’s average Westminster poll rating was still no more than 9 per cent. Gains made in those local elections—when the party was defending its worst ever local performance four years previously—threatened to flatter to deceive.
However, the European election served to focus voters’ minds on Brexit. The Liberal Democrats were campaigning for a second referendum in the hope that this would produce a majority in favour of staying in the EU. They were not unique in holding this position—so also did Change UK, the Greens and the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. However, the Labour Party, which hitherto had been by far the most popular party among those who voted Remain, was still advocating a compromise position. While this compromise did not rule out the possibility of another referendum, it envisaged that a Labour government would attempt to negotiate a Brexit deal, which, though “softer” than…