The centre ground is the new home for millions – the Lib Dems must exploit it

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The current Tory leadership contest has so far been a revealing episode of expert political maneuvering.

With Boris Johnson ahead with a convincing lead, there is little hope of any other opponent garnering sufficient support among the Party membership to beat him. Matt Hancock is guilty of questionable practice by withdrawing from the race and then backing Johnson in the hope of getting the post of Chancellor. Such egotism is in no way uncommon.

Rory Stewart was correct in saying on Sunday night that in a bid to placate the antediluvian membership, the contenders have resorted to a ‘competition of machismo’, attempting to position themselves as the hardest Brexiteer who can ‘stand up to Brussels’ and ‘believe in Britain’, in the dogmatic belief that the economy can take the damage of no-deal and that threats to livelihoods are but mere leaves.

Liberal Tories have long felt that their brand of ‘compassion’ will persuade more to vote for the party, something that worked during the Cameron era. The Brexit fiasco and the state of the all-male shortlist for leader shows that the belief that the centre-right holds the status quo is obviously mistaken.

The two main forces in British politics today are the centrist, moderate forces who have turned away from Jeremy Corbyn’s pseudo-Marxism and those who have deserted their normal voting home in pursuit of Nigel Farage’s obscene maelstrom of ‘betrayal’ and vengeance against imagined elites. Both feel polarised, and the two-party system does not represent any moderate voice. Neither Labour nor the hapless Tories will stand up to the growing voice of facile populism that Johnson or Farage represent.

A Johnson government will try to be as Brexit-centred as possible, but will soon fall when the Parliamentary reality starts to dawn on those who endeavour to pass any Brexit deal without the consent of the country.

Therefore, the Lib Dems are perfectly positioned to exploit people on the ground they have previously failed to persuade. Under the main banner of liberalism, both economic and social, the party will show itself as a reforming, reliable and radical movement, ready to counter the forces of populism and with real experience in government. Going forward, the new leader has the task of ending the two party duopoly and turning the archaic institutions that rule Britain on their head, taking Shelley’s words to heart.

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many – they are few!

* Patrick Maxwell is a Liberal Democrat member and political blogger at and a commentator at

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • William Fowler 18th Jun '19 - 2:26pm

    But Johnson is not an extreme right-winger, although he is partly responsible for Brexit, so it is kind of fitting that he has to now find a way out of the mess. Boris is probably more European than most Brits and has no interest in cutting the UK off from Europe. He has “agreed” to the extreme Brexiteers demand to leave on Oct 31st but he would agree to almost anything to get into power.

  • Paul Barker 18th Jun '19 - 2:32pm

    The Brexit divide has cut across the traditional Left/Right spectrum, producing 4 “Major” Parties each with a fifth of the popular Vote.
    We are in the odd situation of being in the Centre of The Left/Right divide while representing one pole of The Brexit spectrum.
    There is still plenty of room for us to pull ahead, taking the Votes of both “Centrists” in the old sense & Remainers. We still take less than half of the Remain Vote.

  • Neil Sandison 18th Jun '19 - 7:15pm

    Johnson like so many before him will become a prisoner of hard right politics .If he fails to play to their brand of politics they will hound him out of office as they did with Major ,Cameron and May .for these free market small state zealots with a kinship to Trump style republicanism ,where putting your country first is not as important as putting the market first .Brexit is a convinient flag to hoist to enable them to undermine social policy and boost the profits and shares they have in blue chip companies.

  • Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is like a dog chasing a car. He may very well catch the car but he won’t have the foggiest idea what to do when he does, other than to huff, puff and gibber some pig Latin.

  • John Minard 18th Jun '19 - 8:14pm

    The centre ground isn’t just open it’s galactic! A YouGov poll of Tory party members suggests that they are prepared to end the UK! That the ‘party of government’ of this country – the one most associated with Churchill – is prepared to do what the Kaiser and Hitler failed to and end the United Kingdom is beyond extraordinary!

    It is sad to think when the Union Jack is finally lowered in Brussels and we withdraw our portion of sovereignty over the remaining 27 EU nations, it will be a more monumental day of retrenchment than when it was lowered in Hong Kong – for they didn’t want to see us go either but then we didn’t want to leave! I wonder (fear) if a great nation so reduced by narrowness in its thinking can survive without the final ignominy of its dismemberment. Perhaps when the flag we’ve always known, our great grandparents and theirs, is finally lowered there it’s lowered everywhere!

  • Just watched the Tory hustings. What a cacophony of noise from a bunch of self seeking second raters (the twitchy Rory S. only just marginally excluded) …. all talking over each otherand banging their chests ….. and badly chaired by Emily Maitlis whom I normally admire.

    @ John Minard Don’t over estimate Churchill (which Johnson did in his historically inaccurate biography for his own personal reasons).

    GB is becoming a laughing stock which one bit of might just marginally improve if the Saltire ever gets raised in Brussels.

  • Michael Sammon 19th Jun '19 - 12:04am

    This is very good. Rory Stewart has shown how the centre ground can be expolited (in a nice way). This should really be our bread and butter.

  • Graham Evans 19th Jun '19 - 7:17am

    @Neil Sandison It’s a pity to see the left wing claim that the motivation of right wing Brexiteers in the UK is to boost the profits of blue chip companies. The reality is that most blue chip companies earn most of their profits from overseas and export activities, so changes to UK taxation and employment rights are pretty marginal to their profits, and the benefits of membership of the CU and SM far exceed any potential gains from Brexit.

    I suspect that the motivation of most right wing Brexiteers are in reality kept under raps because they believe they would be firmly rejected by most voters. So rather than admitting that they want to remould the UK in the US image, they talk of nebulous concepts like sovereignty and the opportunities of global markets. It is these myths we need to challenge, and get to the heart of the sort of society they want to see, rather than simply repeating left wing slogans.

  • Stephen Hesketh 19th Jun '19 - 10:06am

    I’d be interested to know in what way we should exploit this opportunity beyond our present policies. How should our messaging and positioning differ from what we are saying today or, perhaps even more telling, that which failed to convince liberal Tories to support us in 2015? Doing the same thing and expecting a different result … reaching for his book of quotes!

  • Surely if we want votes at General Elections, we should look much more earnestly at Age than at Left and Right. Two new and major areas where policy and action are urgently required, and understandably engage the young more than their elders, are Climate Change, and Environmental Degradation. And the young, very many of them, are not yet dyed in any wool, and seek sound sense more than partisan loyalty, or technicolor nostalgia.

    A third topic figuring fairly large — even the Tories laughably profess concern — is income inequality, and ‘the working poor’. Do we think enough about that?

    If all that is true, does it not follow that Environment, and Climate, and human sympathy should figure more largely in LD thought?

    All of the above problems will remain, to loom ever larger whatever the outcome of Brexit. Our position on Brexit is well known and respected. So for the benefit of all age groups, let us now indeed, as Michael Sammon urges above, cultivate the centre ground by concentrating not on the immediate future ending 31st October but on the longer prospects seen more maturely by the younger generations.

  • Just reflecting on @Neil Sandisons comments, there seems to be a paradox in that the zealots who are driving Brexit are clearly nationalists (listen to Mark Francois talking about WW2 if you doubt that) but they care little for the state of the nation in as much as they are happy to crash the economy to get where they want to be. This seems to be born out by the recent poll of Tory party members, which suggests that the Conservative Party is no longer the party of economic competence and the Union, but simply a home for cultural reactionaries.
    I’m not sure the majority of Tories even think about issues like the size of the state. More than half of Tory voters want to see higher tax to fund greater public spending (NCRS, reported in The Spectator, 3/1/19), it is the social liberalism of Lib Dems/Labour/Greens which makes them vote Conservative (and read the Daily Mail !!)

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