William Wallace writes: Opportunity for Lib Dems as Labour and Conservatives crumble

It’s going to be even more confusing in the next few weeks and months.  Last Sunday Philip Hammond stated clearly that it’s no longer practical for the UK to leave the EU on October 31st, given the further delays caused by the pause for a Conservative leadership election.  A majority has then to be recreated for some sort of agreement, a bill has to pass through the Commons and the Lords, and preparations for implementation by an over-stretched civil service have to be completed.

Michael Gove has now followed Hammond, suggesting that October 31st may not be a hard and fast deadline.  The passion with which other candidates for the Conservative leadership are now pledging that they will produce a rabbit out of the hat and have everything ready in time, come what may, also suggests their anxiety that this is becoming more and more difficult to manage.  

You will have noticed wilder suggestions (from Esther McVey, Dominic Raab and others) that Parliament might somehow be bypassed, that a new Prime Minister would use prerogative powers to prorogue Parliament and let the UK leave without an agreement or a legal framework: executive sovereignty overriding parliamentary sovereignty, flatly contradicting the rhetoric of the Leave campaign.

The contrast between a Conservative leadership campaign in which competing fantasies are conjured up, and a civil and reasoned Liberal Democrat leadership campaign in which the contenders share values and underlying objectives, should filter through the media as the campaigns continue.  Our difficulty will be to catch media attention, since the horrors of the Conservative fight will provide more of a spectacle.  Thankfully, our Euro-election vote has given us national credibility again; but we will have to work hard to maintain public attention when the struggles within the Labour Party as well as Conservative infighting, provide so much political theatre.

On the other hand, increasing disorder within both other established parties may provide us with opportunities to win more friends and capture public attention.  The question of whether others will defect, at Westminster or outside, will continue to intrigue the press.  There have been active cross-party contacts, on Brexit and on procedural issues, for months.  At Westminster, as well as across the country, Liberal Democrats are being greeted warmly by people who hardly spoke to us some time ago, many of whom quietly tell us that they voted for us (or, at least, ‘lent you my vote’) in the Euro-elections.  We should all be responding generously to potential allies, and encouraging those we can work with to disengage from the parties they have spent years in and move towards committing to us.   Both Labour and the Conservatives are crumbling at the edges; we should aim to win over the liberal-minded from both parties.

There are two other things that will favour us in the coming weeks and months.  The first is the growing sense that Britain is drifting, without any leading Conservative – let alone Nigel Farage – able to get their heads around a coherent plan for a workable Brexit.  As the government fails to meet its revised deadline of October, and asks for another extension, while the economy flatlines and companies announce plant closures, it’s getting harder and harder even for Farage to pretend that everything will be rosy if we just walk away from the EU.

The Trump state visit has given our arguments a boost. Farage has made clear that he sees Britain’s future as following the right-wing American lead, rather than ‘taking back control’.  Trump has told us that there’s no easy trade deal on offer, and further privatization of health provision will be part of the deal.

The second is the rising sense of a constitutional crisis, and the suggestions by right-wing commentators that a new prime minister could somehow get round Parliament and take us out by executive action.  What happens if a new Conservative leader is faced by a handful of further defections from his party whip is contested: could he avoid a vote of confidence before the summer recess, then cancel the September session and take us to the brink of a hard Brexit without parliamentary approval?  Another struggle between government and parliament over whether MPs can vote to exclude a no-deal Brexit is likely to blow up before the summer recess.  The way some Conservatives are talking of overriding parliamentary opposition comes close to envisaging a constitutional coup.

In some ways, nothing is happening in Westminster politics.  But in other ways, the cracks are widening under both major parties, and under our established constitutional conventions.  Let’s make as much of the opportunities these may open for us as we can.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords. He has taught at Manchester and Oxford Universities and at the LSE.

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  • John Littler 6th Jun '19 - 1:14pm

    After The Tories took LibDem votes in coalition too much for granted, then targeted their seats in 2015, the Libdems should have no compunction in turning Tory MP’s into miserable ex. MP’s to receive their re-settlement grants.
    The BP’s will split the Tory vote and make a lot more wins likely, but the BP’s lack of experience and ground organisation or incumbency will put them at a huge disadvantage. Their long term viability is in doubt as they are a media creation with no rules, policies or members and a title which could quite soon make them more unpopular than STI’s, or at least representing a past issue?
    Without worrying too much about Farage’s Neo-fascist credentials for now, the LibDems should make hay and redress the nasty elements in UK politics arguing over such as whether to bring back hanging with a rope, or to use electric shock cables.

  • Barry Lofty 6th Jun '19 - 1:48pm

    A very good summary of the situation as it stands at this moment in time, I only hope we can get our message to people who hold the future of the UK above the usual tribal dictates of the party machines. In my view leaving the EU with or without a deal would be a disaster for my children and grandchildren and a UK government run by Boris Johnson or any of his right-wing cronies just does not bare thinking about! Let alone Nigel Farage.

  • Paul Barker 6th Jun '19 - 2:25pm

    Some of the Tory Leadership contenders seem to be planning to simply suspend Parliament until The UK Crashes Out with No Deal, that is the sort of thing that could really split The Tories into 2 Parties.
    There is talk that May might stay on as PM until its clear that The New Tory Leader can actually command a Majority, which may be never. Liberal History shows what happens when you have a Party with 2 rival “Leaders”.
    Some have suggested a Government of National Unity to pass a “Soft” Brexit Deal & ask The EU for more time, that would split Labour & not necessarily into just 2 pieces. Their Brexit divisions run across both Right & Left.
    Even The ERG on one side & Momentum on the other are split.
    The longer the Chaos continues, the more time we have to build up our strength.

  • William Wallace 6th Jun '19 - 3:38pm

    John Littler: We have everything to gain by being generous in how we behave to people in other parties who have come to realise that their leaders and members have moved beyond what they think is acceptable. Practically, because bringing in liberally-minded politicians, locally and nationally, gives us greater credibility and support; tactically, because it weakens the crumbling coalitions of Labour and Conservatives and so undermines the whole concept of a two-party ‘system’. Of course we don’t want opportunists jumping ship to save their skins, or authoritarians wanting to throw their weight about in our party instead. But there are honest and decent people in both those parties who are now very unhappy, whom we should persuade to consider joining us instead.

  • Do not under estimate the desire of the Brexiteers and Lexiteers to raise the battered tin can they have been merrily kicking down the road for the last three years above their heads and declare Brexit has been achieved. That it will be a poor sickly thing, which will soon expire is irrelevant to them, like gollum their precious is everything, the consequences mean nort. They have tied all their self worth into achieving Brexit/Lexit, if it is not achieved why how can the idiot in the mirror ever be banished.

  • David Chadwick 6th Jun '19 - 5:51pm

    I agree wholeheartedly: the Conservatives are obsessed with Brexit and themselves, the Labour party have resorted to vacuous virtue-signalling.

    It’s dawning on people that the country needs a party unafraid to govern and make big decisions.

    The Coalition can be re-framed as evidence that we aren’t afraid of power. We made decisions and took the consequence on the chin. Now we’re back on our feet and hungry for more.

    Two potential slogans come to mind:

    Competent, Capable, Kind.

    The Truth Hurts.

    Your point about winning public attention is correct. The biggest struggle will be to come up with bold policies that capture attention. We’re not too good at that. We must be bold and dangerous.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Jun '19 - 8:39pm

    The power in the land Fred Harrison 1983 ISBN 0-85683-067-4 £5.95

  • William Wallace 6th Jun '19 - 10:55pm

    We should particularly encourage disappointed people who joined up, or actively supported, Change UK. Many of them were coming into politics for the first time, wanting to make a difference, holding internationalist (and therefore probably also liberal) views, but not understanding yet how hard a slog it is. They will have learned that Liberal Democrats have skills, experience and determination. Can we persuade them now to join us instead?

  • Richard Underhill 9th Jun '19 - 1:58pm

    We should not be surprised at how many candidates the Tory leadership campaign produces, nor at the widespread lack of leadership ability.
    Esther Louise McVey MP tried to interview Andrew Marr on BBC1 on 9/6/19.
    If she had asked him when did the Roman Empire go to war with the Chinese Empire he would have known because he wrote a book about a worldwide approach to history.
    His restraint when she argued 400 years of (presumably English/British) history is commendable, but she is exposing her ignorance or creating fake news as she goes.
    At one point he protested “I work for the BBC”.
    A brief summary of our recent political history is of a power struggle between the monarch and the parliament with the parliament makes gains most of the time.
    Even Lord Howard (Con) is proud to recite what the Speaker said to King Charles 1.
    McVey should know that the first referendum in the UK was in 1975 and confirmed the decision that the parliament had taken. If she is arguing that the great majority of the population has been consulted by political leaders she ought to consult more reliable historical sources.
    When Andrew Marr asked her about her own ministerial record she failed to answer adequately.
    My local MP voted for Theresa May. He is currently silent.
    McVey is the MP for Tatton, which brings a certain sadness. Paddy Ashdown lent a good agent to a journalist standing as an Independent candidate. They won. Despite the wishes of the people of Tatton their MP did not stand for re-election. He stood elsewhere and lost.

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