Voters aren’t talking about Brexit, says Lib Dem leader

Sir Ed DaveyPA Media

Re-joining the European Union is currently “off the table”, Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey has said.

The party, which was defined by its “Stop Brexit” stance four years ago, is eager to talk about other things – this week’s annual conference will instead focus on issues like health and housing.

But will that resolve hold, given that Labour has begun the Brexit conversation again?

Sir Ed says most people on the doorstep just “aren’t talking about Europe”.

The party faithful will congregate in Bournemouth for their first in person autumn conference since before Covid this week – last year’s was called off due to the death of the late Queen.

Teeing up the days ahead, Sir Ed wants to plunge into the problem of raw sewage being pumped into rivers, household bills and the NHS.

“We’ve been making the argument that people should have a right to see their GP within a week.”

It’s things like the NHS and the economy which will determine the next election, he says – not the aftermath of Brexit.

There’s a balancing act ahead for the Liberal Democrats as they eye Conservative-held seats that backed both Leave and Remain in 2016 – such as former strongholds in the west country as well as London and the commuter belt.

As one insider put it, it’s the trick of appealing to both Leave supporting parts of the country and “middle-class Remainia”.

Recent election successes suggest that the party’s tactic, of focusing on core domestic issues, is paying off.

And, if voters really don’t want to talk about Europe then what’s the problem?

In the last few weeks, something has changed. Labour has decided to start talking about Europe, quite a lot.

In a sign of political confidence, Sir Keir Starmer’s been to EU offices in the Netherlands to discuss migration and to Paris to meet the French President, Emmanuel Macron.

Labour’s declared it wants to rewrite the EU-UK trade deal and find fresh areas of cooperation.

Meanwhile, Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been cutting deals with Brussels on Northern Ireland and science research.

An agreement with the EU’s border agency, Frontex, is nearing completion.

But Sir Ed insists that people who are passionate about building closer ties with Brussels should still back his party: “We’re the real deal.”

“If you look over decades, Liberal Democrats have been the party arguing for a strong relationship with our European partners.”

Labour, he says, are “flip-flopping”.

“We want Britain to be back at the heart of Europe but we’re also realistic that’s going to take some time.”

The Liberal Democrats have an agreed policy to “rebuild” Britain’s relationship with the EU which Sir Ed describes would amount to a “root and branch” reform of the Tories “dreadful” deal.

It includes closer links on education, doing a deal on asylum seekers and deepening trade ties – somewhat similar to Labour’s emerging policy.

But there is a big difference in that the Lib Dems seek to take the UK back into the EU’s single market trade bloc at an unspecified point in the future.

So, are they the party of re-join after all?

“We’re the party of trying to make sure that relationship works,” says Sir Ed.

It’s this kind of careful language that’s sparking dismay amongst some within the Liberal Democrats who want a louder, faster-paced policy.

“I would love to see the party being much more honest and braver about addressing the elephant in the room,” says parliamentary candidate Caroline Voaden.

She’s standing in Totnes (soon to be renamed South Devon) and briefly led the Lib Dems in the European Parliament until January 2020.

A bolder case needs to be made, Ms Voaden believes, about the impact of Brexit on the NHS, hospitality and the economy.

“There is a section of the party… who would like to see us being much bolder about our belief that Brexit that was a mistake and that we need to start finding our way back into at least the Single Market and the Customs Union.”

However, others support the leadership’s gradualist approach.

“Even among strong remainers, lots of people don’t want us to reopen that painful row,” says Lucy Nethsingha, the Lib Dem leader of Cambridgeshire County Council.

Local and by-election wins have led many in the party to think they’re on the right track, despite largely flatlining in the polls this year.

Jo Swinson


“I think there’s a significant recognition that we’re doing well under Sir Ed’s leadership,” says Ms Nethsingha, who also briefly served as a member of the European Parliament.

Scrolling through the Bournemouth conference agenda, the EU only gets incidental mentions within other policy motions about farming, the armed forces and how to grow the economy.

The word Brexit isn’t in there at all.

It’s a far cry from former leader Jo Swinson standing in front of “Stop Brexit” banners in the winter election of 2019.

She, of course, would go on to lose her seat as the hoped-for remain revival failed to materialize.

Back then the Lib Dems thought being big and bold on being anti-Brexit would be a vote winner.

Ahead of next year’s likely general election, the party has now reached the opposite conclusion.

They’ll hope, this time, they’re right.

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