Post-Brexit political campaigning

Brexit is not over. Nor have the Liberal Democrats given up on the issue – nor should you.  Ed Davey and others have taken the tactical decision that the campaigning priority now should be on the government’s incompetence across the board.  The Conservatives now ‘own’ Brexit, and are struggling with the consequences of sacrificing free access for the illusion of sovereignty.  They would love us to come out at once for rejoining: that would allow them to return to blaming ‘remoaners’ for somehow sabotaging Brexit, and avoid having to explain how they got us into this mess.

Voters are tired and confused by bitter arguments over the EU.  A clear majority now recognise the costs, and consider leaving a mistake; but there is not yet widespread support for trying to rejoin a month after we left.  Better for us immediately to focus on the detailed implications, issue by issue, and let voters come to terms with the painful reality of losing easy access to our neighbours’ countries and markets.

The Times on 21st January reported that the highly effective letter from professional musicians it had published the day before, which had led the Culture Secretary to retreat from his previously unhelpful position on future reciprocal EU working permits, had been ‘organised by the Liberal Democrats’ (thanks to our DCMS team, with Paul Strasburger in the lead on this).  Alastair Carmichael has been vocal in support of the fishermen now unable to transport and sell their fish in continental markets.  Jenny Randerson is campaigning in support of hauliers struggling with delays and paperwork.  Your parliamentary team are now stirring on the petty decision to deny the EU Representative in London diplomatic status: a gesture that will delight European Research Group MPs, but lose further good will among EU governments.

Much of what is now going wrong was perfectly obvious from the start of the Brexit negotiations, but denied by the hard Brexiteers who voted down Theresa May’s less minimalist deal and pushed for ‘sovereignty’ at the cost of all other considerations.  It may well get worse.  It won’t help us to say ‘We told you so’ to voters who are beginning to change their minds.  Better to help those adversely affected challenge the government on why it misled them on the consequences of Brexit.

I joined the Liberal Party in 1960, partly because Jo Grimond’s commitment to European integration and his dismissal of the illusions of post-imperial great power status.  I haven’t changed my mind, nor have my colleagues.  The UK is now out, but the closeness of the future relationship remains to be negotiated, issue by detailed issue, over the coming months and years.  The government will struggle between the determined hostility of its Ultras to everything European and the reasoned case for institutionalised cooperation. We will argue the case for closer association, which may create a popular momentum to reopen the question of membership.

One of the next struggles the government will face is how to define ‘Global Britain.’  The Ultras are calling for a ‘tilt to the Pacific’ which will minimise foreign and defence cooperation with Europe and link Britain closely to Australia, New Zealand and Singapore (and of course the USA).  An ‘Integrated Review’ of UK foreign and defence policy was promised for the Autumn of 2020.  Its delay, until March at least, partly reflects inability to agree how to include a European dimension; Boris Johnson is excited about ‘returning our forces east of Suez’ and sending a carrier task force to the South China Sea.  Liberal Democrats will challenge the illusions of ‘Global Britain’, asking (alongside others) whether the threat from Russia still matters and how cooperation with France, the Netherlands and Germany will be sustained.

This incompetent, incoherent and corrupt government will stumble over its own contradictions.  And we must expose those contradictions, while developing an alternative narrative about Britain and its place in the world.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • This incompetent and corrupt government will talk their way out of any problems and blame somebody else eg fish producers. Our leader will probably not be on the news for another year having used up our five minutes per year. Hard Brexit will be the winners.

  • Barry Lofty 22nd Jan '21 - 4:12pm

    I can only say Hear Hear! to this piece by Lord Wallace and say it was Jo Grimond who inspired me all those years ago.

  • We should say clearly that we are a pro-trade party and then promote the solution that gets trade moving again.
    Historically the Liberal Party supported free trade against the imperial preference of the Tories. We did rather well in 1906 on the back of it.

  • Christopher Curtis 22nd Jan '21 - 6:12pm

    Wise words and I would be delighted if they were enthusiastically and generously reflected in every interview and statement from ALL the leadership of the party. It’s not the theoretical or ideological that will cut through right now, as those discussions have been deeply damaged by lies and misdirection, but people are hurting as things they were promised do not materialise, their lives become ever harder and more complicated and we all watch prosperity and security ebbing away.

  • Paul Barker 22nd Jan '21 - 6:46pm

    If there is one thing that wont work for us its dishonesty. Most of those Voters who may listen to us know perfectly well that we want to Rejoin, trying to downplay that just looks shifty & cowardly.
    Of course we will be called Remoaners but that wasnt terribly effective when Brexit was still being fought over, it will be even less effective now.

  • William Francis 22nd Jan '21 - 6:59pm

    “Boris Johnson is excited about ‘returning our forces east of Suez’ and sending a carrier task force to the South China Sea”

    If I recall correctly this was one of the imperial pretensions that Grimond said was holding the UK back economically in “Growth not Grandeur”.

  • I read that Pres.Macron aims to make France a global power and be in the EU. This will include a permanent naval presence in the South China Sea with facilities in Vietnam Thailand Singapore and India[ not in the Pacific I know1]. As a minimum we must maintain close military links with France so we should not oppose completely any east-of-suez policy. We cannot oppose a global Britain if there is a global France.

  • Lord Wallace appears to be arguing that we should only follow public opinion, not lead it. For a small party as we currently are, that leaves us in an irrelevant no man’s land, destined to cling to survival in the shadow of Labour and the SNP.

    If we believe that the UK is better off in the EU, we should say so, loudly and proudly. The same goes for all of our other policies. That is honest politics, and gives us a chance to distinguish ourselves from other opposition parties.

    In other news, party policy is decided by members, not the leadership.

  • Very reassuring email from Tim Farron
    “Dear Paul
    Thank you very much for your recent email with regard to Ed Davey’s interview and the party’s EU policy. We are proud to be a pro-European party and believe strongly in international cooperation, especially with our closest allies. I can assure you that the Liberal Democrats will be campaigning to rejoin the EU at the next election and a rejoin policy will be in our next manifesto. There is a question about how we go about campaigning to rejoin without being dragged into a culture war by the Tories but that doesn’t change the fact that we remain, and Ed remains, utterly committed to seeing the UK rejoin the EU at the soonest possible opportunity. It was one interview and Ed is clear that he was seeking to move Marr on to other issues and so he was perhaps a bit too dismissive of that question.
    With best wishes
    Yours sincerely

  • Katharine Pindar 22nd Jan '21 - 10:25pm

    It’s good to read such a well-informed overview of the current outlook and activities of the Parliamentary team, thank you, William. With local government issues and the May elections preoccupying many local activists, and as always scant media coverage of the party nationally, such an article surely helps to keep us together. Good to know also that Tim Farron is still a determined European, Paul Young – thank you for sharing – notwithstanding his devoted service to his South Lakes constituency.

  • David Garlick 23rd Jan '21 - 10:11am


  • Alan Jelfs:
    Not just in 1906 have the Tories seriously miscalculated on foreign trade, the early 19th century Corn Laws put them out of power for 20 years and led to the creation of the Liberal Party.
    It looks like trade is a big recurring problem for the Tories roughly every 100 years.
    Great article.

  • Denis Loretto 23rd Jan '21 - 12:16pm

    I also joined the party in 1960 and was a committed European well before the UK joined the “common market”. Like the vast majority of Liberal Democrats I feel bereft now that brexit is a reality. I also agree with the balanced view put forward here by William Wallace. The time will come for campaigning to rejoin the EU but the duty of our leadership now is to use whatever influence they have to seek amelioration of the practical difficulties already emerging and threatening our trade and our people – probably for years to come and certainly well before any question of rejoining could arise.

    However that does not fix what I can only regard as a “misspeak” by our leader last Sunday. If I heard correctly he said to Andrew Marr “We are not a rejoin party”. It is insufficient for Lord Wallace and Tim Farron and perhaps others to nuance this. It simply requires Ed Davey personally to explain himself. It will do no harm to his credibility if this involves admitting to a degree of misspeak in the heat of the moment. I certainly hope that is what it was.

  • john oundle 23rd Jan '21 - 7:32pm

    After the events of the past few weeks I would suggest it would be best to keep quiet about the EU.

    China inflicts a pandemic on the world,refuses to co-operate, blocks entry of WHO officials, has one of the worst human rights record in the world…and what happens?

    The EU reward it with a trade deal.

  • Geoffrey Dron 24th Jan '21 - 11:30am
  • John McHugo 24th Jan '21 - 5:58pm

    Until recently, I had thought it would take six months or so to know whether the problems at the European border are “teething problems” or a symptom of gross negligence by Lord Frost and his team and their political masters, Johnson and Gove. I therefore thought we would be right to be a “pro-European” party, rather than a “rejoin” party, as Ed seemed to indicate on Andrew Marr.

    Now, as time passes, I feel the great British (sorry, English) public is falling out of love with Brexit much more quickly than we realise.

    I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend whose daughter is an accountant working for one of the largest companies in the FTSE100. She was in charge of a team consolidating the accounts of all its EU subsidiaries until 31 December. Then, hey presto! Because we are no longer in the single market this work had to be shifted to a location within the EU, providing work there for local professionals, and probably providing jobs to EU nationals who until recently had been working as accountants in London.

    This kind of thing has not yet hit the media, but will do so sooner or later. It will follow on naturally from exporters finding their best bet is to incorporate a subsidiary in Holland and shift their logistical operation over there. I feel in my bones that there are a lot more things like this about Brexit that are going to come out. I think it may be time to campaign openly and enthusastically for rejoining much sooner than I did only a fortnight ago – or perhaps start with a half way house: suggest we should renegotiate along the lines of Theresa May’s deal if there is not yet an appetite for rejoining. That would really embarrass Johnson (and end the sea border in the Irish Sea).

    We should also demand Johnson goes now, if only to save the Union.

  • Peter Hirst 27th Jan '21 - 4:29pm

    This is an excellent synopsis of where we are determines our policies and campaigns. Johnson might well have to go to save the Union. Tory incompetence is not sufficient to win the argument. We should devote time to detailing how and where we’d go from here.

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