The Stephen Lloyd case shows there is no room for nuance in politics

Politics ought to be synonymous with good governance, but it’s not. It’s a game you have to play to get into a position where you can practise good governance. Politics doesn’t seem to have any room for nuances or counterintuitive positions, as the case of the Eastbourne MP Stephen Lloyd has shown.

Lloyd is a classic liberal hero. He can thank the NHS for the fact that he can hear anything – indeed that he’s alive – because it saved him when his hearing and his life were seriously threatened as a toddler. He therefore believes in public services through deep personal experience. He also mortgaged and remortgaged his house to allow him to fight the traditionally Conservative stronghold of Eastbourne. He failed to win the seat in 2005, won it in 2010, lost it in 2015, and won it back in 2017.

The way he won it back in 2017 has sown the seeds of his decision to resign the party whip. Bear with me on the detail, because this is very important.

At the start of the 2017 general election campaign, Lloyd worked out that the only way he was going to win Eastbourne was to accept that the Brexit issue was over, and that despite his own views – he was an enthusiastic campaigner for Remain in the 2016 referendum – he would respect the referendum result. He quotes voters who said to him ‘I’d happily have you as my MP but I voted Leave and if you’re our MP you’ll work to scupper Brexit in Parliament.’ He therefore made a pledge that if the government did a withdrawal deal, he would vote for it.

Viewed from today’s perspective, it might be considered rash, but the vantage point at the time was different. The prevailing narrative was that Theresa May had called the election because she knew she’d increase her majority, and the question was merely whether her post-election majority would be 30, 60 or even 100 seats. The idea that she might lose her majority seemed fanciful, and therefore Brexit seemed as good as done.

Since then, May has mishandled the whole process (not all her own fault), and Brexit is in serious doubt. Lloyd knows this – he’s still a Remainer, and fears for Britain if we leave the EU. But he made the promise, and he says he’s learned in politics that when you make a promise you have to stick with it.

He learned that by being a member of the Lib Dem group of MPs who voted for an increase in university tuition fees in 2011. The rationale behind it was reasonable: the party was using its influence in government to make David Cameron’s higher education funding proposals a lot less draconian for students. And the Lib Dems succeed to a large extent. But they had pledged in the 2010 election campaign that they wouldn’t put up fees; they were therefore pummelled for breaking that pledge, and the party was hammered at the 2015 election. Lloyd also saw Cameron make his ‘no ifs, no buts’ pledge not to build a third runway at Heathrow, a pledge Cameron just about held (simply because he’d made the promise) despite becoming convinced that there should be a third runway.

So Stephen Lloyd now finds himself as one of 12 MPs of the most consistently anti-Brexit party in Parliament. He doesn’t disagree with Lib Dem policy, but he can’t support it with his parliamentary vote, because of the pledge he made. This is the way politics works, so the best way he saw out of the morass was to resign the party whip but not resign from the party.

But could he, or should he have broken his promise? A friend of mine has developed a fine analogy: Imagine Stephen has taken his family out on a picnic in their car. His daughter has just passed her driving test, and Stephen promises her that he will let her drive home. The picnic ends, the daughter drives the car away with Stephen in the passenger seat and the rest of the family in the back. The daughter drives from side to side across the road and eventually begins to steer towards a cliff edge. The family beg Stephen to wrest the controls from his daughter, but he says, ‘No, I promised her she could drive.’ Has he not reached a point where he is absolved from the responsibility to keep a promise? In fact is keeping that promise unethical?

Politics is effectively run by the media these days. The sensible thing would have been for Lloyd to have used this analogy to explain why he couldn’t honour his promise made in 2017, but he knows what will happen – it will simply get reported as a broken promise, with all the nuances lost. And yet, he is now being attacked by his own party members for being at odds with party policy when he isn’t – the nuance has got lost there too. And where does the honour and integrity of keeping a promise cross into the realm of obstinacy and stubbornness that causes intransigence?

Regrettably there is no room for nuances in politics. My only hope is that the liberal tradition has enough compassion and basic mediation skills left in it for enough people to realise this is a dilemma caused by the clash of two competing principles, and there may in fact be no villains in this, contrary to what today’s world has come to expect.

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Michael Cole 9th Dec '18 - 1:36pm

    “Politics is effectively run by the media these days. ”

    How very true.

  • Darren Martin 9th Dec '18 - 2:19pm

    I’m afraid your attempt to frame this as an honourable act is flawed by how you framed his actions at the start of your article. He promised something he didn’t believe in to get elected thinking May was going to win a huge majority and it would never matter. That isn’t integrity, it is something that the Lib Dems have been guilty of in the past leading to our seats being vulnerable and nobody knowing what we really stand for.
    Unfortunately for him, the government ended up with no majority and his vote matters. That’s the point here beyond party politics, we need EVERY vote to stop this madness.
    If he believes it should be stopped, the honourable thing to do is to vote against the deal.

  • Sue Sutherland 9th Dec '18 - 2:46pm

    I think the problem is that there’s no room for nuance about Brexit rather than politics in general. It has exacerbated existing divisions in our society and created more. It sounds as if Stephen is an honourable man, who’s being viewed as a Brutus by many in the party who are desperate for us to present a united front on Brexit when all they see is muddle from the two main parties. I’m hopeful that he’s done the right thing and will be welcomed back to the Parliamentary group soon.

  • Chris Fauske 9th Dec '18 - 3:03pm

    Many years ago, I was one of very many Liberal Party members who made the trek to Mitcham and Morden to work on Bruce Douglas-Man’s by-election campaign, triggered when he left the Labour Party to join the SDP, an action he had promised his constituency party he would take when asked about the likelihood of him joining the widely anticipated new party.

    After the result (a loss) was announced, Bruce addressesd the volunteers who had worked tirelessly. “You can,” he said, “regret making a promise. You can never regret keeping one.”

    It is a statement that has long stuck with me as a solid piece of advice. When, sometimes, we make promises in good faith that later turn out to put us in a difficult position, that does not mean we are free to break them. Nor does it mean we should break them in the name of practicality. It does mean we should be careful of making promises, as the tuition fees matter so starkly demonstrated. But I think, too, we should be very careful about imposing an after-the-fact test of the wisdom of having made that promise in the first place.

    And, surely, when someone has the integrity to keep his word, we must acknowledge that, however much we regret the consequence of doing so.

    There are honourable ways to re-visit promises made to electors, during each election campaign, but there are also less honourable ways to re-visit promises.

  • paul barker 9th Dec '18 - 3:22pm

    The fundamental problem here is that for the best part of a Century our MPs have behaved like a loose alliance of Independents rather than a Party. That was necessary for survival but we need to lose that attitude if we are ever to break out of our ghetto. Its good to see that The Party are taking Stephen Lloyds decision calmly, I disagree with him but I would welcome him back to the fold once this phase of Brexit is settled.
    We should follow Washingtons advice & hang together.

  • Allan Heron 9th Dec '18 - 3:48pm

    Is the real problem not that Stephen’s pledge is devoid of nuance?

  • David Sheppard 9th Dec '18 - 4:41pm

    I respect his right to do what he promised his electorate and hope he can still be loved after the vote on Tuesday ,he will be free of that promise then.

  • Allan Brame 9th Dec '18 - 5:16pm

    Why are we obsessing over this decision by a single MP?
    When it comes to party divisions, the Tories and Labour leave us standing.

  • Yeovil Yokel 9th Dec '18 - 5:47pm

    We wouldn’t be Lib Dem’s, Allan, if we didn’t obsess about matters of principle. The Tories and Labour heavily bandage their festering wounds, we like to expose our grazes for the world to admire. At least we now know a lot more about Stephen Lloyd!

  • David Warren 9th Dec '18 - 6:13pm

    @paul barker

    I believe it was Benjamin Franklin not Washington who spoke of hanging together.

  • Lee_Thacker 9th Dec '18 - 6:42pm

    He remortgaged his house to stand for parliament? That says a lot about our political system.

  • As a regular follower and loyal LD voter, lets move on from this and focus on the future and working about what we agree on and focus on getting the sort of policies and government that the country is crying out for. Voters are deeply unhappy (and divided) and need the calming voices of the centre and moderate liberal ground, not the shrill shrieks of the Press and radical Right or Left

  • David Warren 10th Dec '18 - 9:58am

    Well said @cris

    The Lib Dems are a much more united party than any of the others.

    We need to be getting our policies across to the voters and hopefully reap the rewards electorally.

  • Lee Thacker – Indeed it does. Isn’t it good that the liberals are out there prepared to do it for all those people who so desperately need them?

  • Sue Sutherland 10th Dec '18 - 1:24pm

    David Raw I totally agree with you.

  • John Faulkner 10th Dec '18 - 2:22pm

    Like most Lib Dems I want the UK to remain in Europe
    However, I respect Stephen’s position. I helped in his election campaigns for the last 2 general elections, although not living in the constituency- I would do so again. He is a true liberal and has done so much within the constituency to help people when they need it. I wish there were more MPs like him.

  • I agree with Darren Martin – the fundamental issue here is someone promising something they didn’t believe in in order to get elected.

    But there is a still a way out for Stephen Lloyd! One that recognises the position he’s put himself into and both the importance of MPs having clear principles and not just saying whatever they think will get them elected: he can resign. If Lloyd is trapped in a position in which the only way to respect his constituents is to vote against what he believes to be the good of the country, he can resign his seat and allow a by-election in which candidates speak openly and honestly about their position on Brexit. Of course, that has downsides from his POV…

  • Richard Underhill 13th Dec '18 - 6:47pm

    I attended a meeting, mainly of his local party, in which he spelt out facts about his fundraising at election time. Once to friends and colleagues he had known in business. Most recently simply to the people of Eastbourne on Facebook. The result was more than expected, but enough to contest a general election in one seat.
    When the leaflets say that “everyone in Eastbourne knows somebody who has been helped by Stephen Lloyd” they mean it literally.

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