Baroness Shas Sheehan writes…Lib Dems lead the opposition to Brexit

This week I was chatting to a (pretty senior) press person about the forces of gravity holding Lib Dem polling figures below the double-digit mark. 

Their response was that we were playing it too safe and needed to do something alarming. This was whilst waiting for the Commons’ votes on Monday night. Neither of us thought for one moment that that event might be our current leader and our former leader missing a Commons vote on a Jacob Rees-Mogg amendment designed to make the cobbled together Chequers agreement even less palatable to the EU. The Government won the vote by a whisker – just 3 votes in it. 

So, the fact that 17 Labour MPs went awol and 4 (if you include Kelvin Hopkins) voted with the Government, was lost in the excitement of Vince and Tim having been let off the whip by prior arrangement at a point when it had been deemed safe to do so, and Jo had been paired.

Of course, had it been realised that Labour were going to, unexpectedly, oppose the Government (a rarity when it comes to Brexit legislation) and the vote was going to be a close one, then our arch-remainer leader and former leader would have been in the lobbies. So, the expected, comfortable, Government victory margin was reduced to three. 

It’s a shame they missed this vote, but let’s not despair – we are nowhere near the end of the long Brexit road. There are opportunities aplenty coming up when Vince will be leading our Commons team trying to stop the Government taking a wrecking ball to our economy for a pipe dream.

It’s becoming clearer by the day that the only logical end to this sorry saga will be for the public to have the final say. This has been the Lib Dem position from the start.

We now know that the Brexiteers will see to it that the political route out of the Commons of anything resembling a tolerable trading environment with the EU will be destroyed – the landscape is pocked with mines. And Theresa May has shown that her priority is to ensure the survival of her tenure of no 10, even if it means siding with the extreme brexiteers.

So, we are heading, slowly but inexorably to a no-deal outcome. 

We Lib Dems must hold together. Let’s remember the prize for which we have long battled – the chance to argue for the safer, more prosperous future for our countryfolk that remaining in the EU will bring.

And that will only be the start of the battle. Because thereafter we will have to make the case for restoring our membership of the EU, because before 23 June 2016 when Cameron and Osborne bet the house on an ill-thought through referendum, we had our cake – and were eating it.

* Shas Sheehan is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • Peter Martin 19th Jul '18 - 12:11pm

    It’s becoming clearer by the day that the only logical end to this sorry saga will be for the public to have the final say.

    Wasn’t that the argument for having both the 1975 and 2016 referendums?

    So imagine we have have another one next year. Let’s try to imagine what the Leave side will be saying:

    * We’re only having this referendum because we didn’t ‘vote the right way’ three years ago.

    * If we vote Remain now we’ll never again have the chance to vote Leave.

    * But if we do vote Leave now we will get another chance to vote Remain. And probably another chance, and another chance after that!

    * Stand Up for Britain against the bullying EU, and their supporters, who won’t take no for an answer. Vote Leave and keep voting Leave!

    You’ll probably think it’s unfair but they will have a point and it is a persuasive argument.

  • Yesterday my wife was in the Market Square at lunchtime and saw a Lib Dem stall and personnel. Checked the party’s local website and find:-
    “On 18th July Stafford and Stone Lib Dems set up a stall at lunchtime in the centre of Stafford. There was lots of lively conversation with passers-by.
    We asked people at random how they had voted in the EU referendum. 196 people told us. 102 said they had voted LEAVE (52%) and 94 said they has voted REMAIN (48%)
    Coincidentally these percentages reflect the national outcome of the referendum. The referendum figures for Stafford were a little different – LEAVE 56% and REMAIN 44%.
    We asked our 196 visitors if they’d changed their minds and 17 said they had (8.6%). 4 remainers had become leavers and 13 leavers had become remainers.
    Applying these changes to the referendum figures for Stafford now puts REMAIN and LEAVE very close – on 51% to 49%. If the same changes were reflected on the outcome of the referendum nationally REMAIN would be on 52% and remain would be on 47%.
    Conclusion? The scale of change is small but the direction of change is clear – towards REMAIN”
    I would add that when you add on the number of older person deaths over the last two years and the numbers of new voters and students coming on, then Remain will presumably have a bigger lead NATIONALLY, I reckon 55 to 45 maybe more.
    PERHAPS we should ACCUSE Leave and Mrs May of being SIMPLY SCARED STIFF of another Referendum for FEAR OF THE RESULT.

  • “the forces of gravity holding Lib Dem polling figures below the double-digit mark.”

    There are I think 3 things that need to happen for a revival in our opinion poll rating.

    1. Become the “new” Liberal Democrats on policies other than Brexit – particularly free university tuition fees paid through general taxation or borrowing – oh I forgot it is already paid through borrowing – only individually at high interest rates rather than collectively at low interest rates. We need to grant “permission” for people to vote for us again – particularly younger voters and we have half the level of support among 18-24s as we do overall.

    I fear that Tim and Vince will be seen and are seen as the Foot and Kinnock of Labour or the Hague and Howard of the Conservatives – not different enough from the past – rather than the Cameron or Blair. And that is despite the fact that I have a vast, vast amount of time for both Tim and Vince. A very clear break with the coalition years of Government is needed – as it was for Labour and the Tories. But I fear that will only happen after another General Election.

    2. Brexit to happen. The political classes massively underestimate how gradually the public are affected by events and politics. The poll tax was only an issue AFTER it was introduced. And I hope that Brexit doesn’t happen.

    3. A similar month to March 1991 – when our poll rating went from 8% to 16%. What happened in March 1991? We won the Ribble Valley by-election.

  • Peter Watson 19th Jul '18 - 3:01pm

    “Lib Dems lead the opposition to Brexit”
    I don’t think that they have lead.
    Since the referendum in 2016, Lib Dems appear to have taken a very unilateral party political approach, presumably in the expectation of an influx of support from soft Tory and New Labour Remainers in order to overcome “the forces of gravity holding Lib Dem polling figures below the double-digit mark”.
    This opportunistic attempt to reverse electoral decline does not seem to have benefited the party or the campaign to remain in the EU, failing to overcome Lib Dem, Tory and Labour tribalism. And it might prove counter-productive.
    I believe that a continuation of the cross-party or non-party aligned strategy, coordinated by a genuine single-issue pressure group, would have been a much better approach, although it would have needed to adapt to the shortcomings that were apparent before the referendum.

  • Alex Macfie 20th Jul '18 - 6:42am

    “The Cable/Farron absence was indeed…. ‘alarming’. It will echo and reverberate in the future”

    I don’t think so. It’s already old news, a storm in a teacup. Not that many people follow Parliament closely enough to care. The only ones who are going to make an issue of it are the Momentum-y types who were never going to support us in the first place. And we can hit back at them by pointing out Labour’s Labstaining strategy.

  • The problem with their absence is not so much the vote itself when others who could have made a difference were absent, but that it has been, and will be used, disproportionately, against us, and it will be raised whenever our rivals worry we are making too much progress. We need to be realistic, we are a party who is ignored when we are doing everything right, but suddenly get a lot of attention when there is a slip-up.

    And yes, most people won’t have noticed, or will have forgotten, but we need to appeal to the people who are paying attention to the news. How else do we attract new and returning voters?

  • I assure you, it isn’t just “Momentum types” who think that you can’t claim to be leading on Remain if the party leader doesn’t turn up to the vote. It may have been a merely symbolic vote and there will be other opportunities, but it ends up looking like the wrong sort of symbolism. Saying “Labour did it too” is not a defence when you’re trying to argue that the LibDems are significantly different from Labour.

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Jul '18 - 12:58pm

    “It’s a shame they missed this vote, but let’s not despair”
    I’m afraid this comment comes across to me as patronising the concerns of members and Remainers who aren’t Lib Dems. At the moment we are seen a single issue party and our leaders have failed to turn up for a vote on that issue, which we also believe is the most crucial decision for our country for decades. Vince and Tim’s absence has been interpreted as lack of commitment. This is apart from Labour’s spin on the reasons for the vote being lost, which was ridiculous.
    It seems to me that in this case the perception of members, interested voters and the general public is more important than what actually happened, which is that we were caught out by Parliamentary customs. Tim has apologised and so has Alastair but I haven’t seen any message from Vince.
    I think we need to hear that all Lib Dem MPs will be present for all Brexit debates in the future, especially as Labour and the Tories have shown that they can’t be trusted to maintain the usual conventions over this.

  • Shas Sheehan 20th Jul '18 - 2:48pm

    Peter Martin, I like your post. Please complete it with what you think the Remain side will be saying.

  • Peter Martin 20th Jul '18 - 6:15pm

    @ Shas,

    “Please complete it with what you think the Remain side will be saying.”

    OK. The Remain side should be making the positive case for the EU. That should have been the approach in 2016. But there wasn’t much of that. If there was I missed it. The arguments seemed to be that we had the best of both worlds because we were still members of the EU even though we didn’t have to use the euro and we’d negotiated useful opt outs such as not being part of Schengen. In other words, the EU was sort of OK providing that we didn’t have to have too much EU. Also there was an element of “if you think it’s bad now just wait until we’ve left!”

    Not the most positive of messages!

    I expect it will be more of the same next time, if there is a next time, with the additional possibility that the alternatives to staying in the EU will be what will be seen as a punitive deal imposed by the EU (it doesn’t much matter if the EU has very good reasons for doing that) or completely leaving under WTO terms.

    The remain side will be cast as faint hearts who want to surrender to the EU. That’s not going to be an easy position to be in.

    My personal opinion is that we should be in the EU 100% or out 100%. If there was enough positive support for the EU and a genuine belief we could get involved to such an extent that we’d have enough influence to fix the eurozone and make it work for everyone rather than just the efficient exporters of the North, I could be convinced. But that seems little more than a pipe dream, so I’m a reluctant leaver.

  • Catherine M:

    “Saying “Labour did it too” is not a defence”

    But they didn’t, and it’s not what we’re saying. Labour has been doing something far far worse: systematically helping the government by whipping its MPs to abstain on multiple Brexit votes. Whatever you may think of the validity of this for the Lib Dems as a “defence”, the fact is that it means that Labour is going find it very hard going trying to use the accidental absence of two Lib Dem MPs on one single Brexit vote against the Lib Dems as a whole, because we can easily point out their systematic lack of opposition. And anyone who views it as as reason not to vote Lib Dem really needs to get a sense of proportion.

    The point is, it was a c*ck-up, for which those responsible have put their hands up and apologised. Yet this does not seem to have knocked some of the critics off their high horses (see comments in other threads). These tend to be the same people who keep saying we should “apologise for the Coalition”, rather exposing the pointlessness of such a gesture, as it suggests that they have no intention of actually accepting such an apology.

    Sue Sutherland

    “At the moment we are seen a single issue party”

    Actually we aren’t. Outside of the areas where we retain local strength, most voters have forgotten we exist, so don’t really know what we stand for on Brexit or anything else. This is the real reason why we are struggling to get above 10% in the opinion polls.

    David Raw

    “I’m afraid I also find no consolation in Michael’s Ribble Valley reminder. We lost it eleven months later and polled just 5% last year.”

    Ribble Valley was never a seat where we had much local strength. It was a classic flash-in-the-pan by-election victory, and hardly anyone pretends it was anything else. The point about Parliamentary by-election victories is the short-term boost they give to us nationally — they remind voters that we exist.

  • Peter Martin 21st Jul '18 - 9:14am

    I’m not sure I believed this Guardian article at the time but it is looking much more like Natalie Nougayrède was quite right now.

    The problem is, from a Remain POV, that the EU is increasingly appearing to waverers as inflexible and vindictive. So even those who thought it wasn’t a good idea to vote Leave in 2016 are going to have second thoughts about voting Remain in a new referendum.

    It’s not going to be a simple matter of voting Remain to reverse the process. We’ll not be treated like the Biblical prodigal son! There’ll be a big price to pay for daring to challenge the integrity of the EU.

  • Alex, I get what you are saying, and yes, what Labour did was far more damaging, and it isn’t accurate or fair to say we are a single issue party, but this is one of those scenarios where perception carries more weight than reality.

    IMO, there are two things to learn from this. The first is that we cannot ever risk having two MPs missing a vote that could be vaguely close. This comes with opportunity costs, as requiring all of our MPs to be in or close to Westminster for all votes means that our MPs can’t get on with certain other work which 99 times out of 100 is more useful.

    The second is to work out how the other political parties managed to very successfully deflect any criticism of them onto us. Remain Labour supporters who realise they had MPs who missed the vote make the excuse that the party reflects a variety of views, while SNP supporters haven’t even noticed that two of their own failed to show up as they mock Vince and Tim, and they have made a lot of hay out of this particular episode. Plaid made things worse by claiming that the only parties to get it wrong were us, Labour and the Tories, conveniently missing out their fellow nationalists, but we should never have let that narrative take hold. Yet I couldn’t tell you the names of the SNP, Labour or Tory MPs who didn’t vote. And I know that some of them, like Jo, were paired, but I do think it’s the profile of Vince and Tim that aided the opportunism of our rivals.

    Rightly or wrongly, our political rivals will use the tiniest opportunity to have a go at us, as will the pro-Brexit media. Meanwhile, the media that is attempting ‘balance’ will feel they need to devote time on our minor failings. Easier said than done, but we need to find a way to ensure that other MPs and other policies get media attention, and not let rivals get away with the impression that our mistake was somehow far worse than their mistake.

  • Peter Watson 21st Jul '18 - 5:58pm

    @Fiona “our political rivals will use the tiniest opportunity to have a go at us, as will the pro-Brexit media”
    Even the militantly liberal “Last Leg” TV show had a go at the Lib Dems about this last night This was definitely a significant own goal by the party.

  • I see plenty of false assumptions and some excuses here. We should know the Tories are not to be trusted at least when their self interest is at stake. Labour is very unpredictable at present. We are the only Party to show any principle on Brexit and act again in the nations’s interests.

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