The Liberal Democrats claim to have a unique selling point in the electoral market. They proudly trumpet their pledge to “revoke Article 50” if they win next month’s election.
It’s easy to make promises you won’t be in a position to keep. There’s no chance of the Lib Dems winning a majority or becoming the largest party at Westminster. They’ll be lucky to win more seats than the Scottish National Party, never mind Labour or the Conservatives. There hasn’t been a Liberal victory in a British general election since 1910, and this vote will be no exception.
But even if Jo Swinson’s party did live up to its own hype, its ‘Revoke’ policy would be a disaster, guaranteeing that the Brexit crisis will drag on for many years to come. Like Boris Johnson and the Tories, the Lib Dems are cynically promising to “Get Brexit Done” (or done away with), while doing their very best to ensure it remains the central issue in British politics.
As Stephen Bush of the New Statesman has argued, using an election victory as a platform to revoke Article 50 would simply inaugurate a vicious circle for years if not decades:
Let’s say for a moment that the Liberal Democrats’ great hope, that they can use Brexit to realign politics, works. Let’s say it works so well that they hit the magical 35 percent mark, the line at which, under our eccentric electoral system, parties start to win majorities. 52 percent of the country would have their vote annulled by the votes of 35 percent.
Once the precedent was set for scrapping Brexit without a fresh referendum, Bush points out, there would be nothing to stop pro-Brexit parties from triggering Article 50 again after winning the next election: “General elections would become Brexit referendums by proxy, forever.”
Most people — whether they voted Leave or Remain in 2016 — would find the idea of “Brexit referendums by proxy, forever” about as inviting as a bucket of chlorine-spattered chicken. However, for the grifters and opportunists who’ve attached themselves to the Brexit debate in recent years, it sounds like political caviar.
This applies to Jo Swinson and the Lib Dems just as much as it does to Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party. They don’t want the issue to go away: they want an endless cycle of grievance and polarisation on which their parties can feed.
Deal or No Deal
Of course, there’s no real prospect of the Lib Dems reaching that “magical 35 percent mark” on December 12th. Swinson’s party knows it will never have to make good on its promise. Their fall-back policy — the one they actually expect to implement if they’re in government — is to hold a second referendum with Remain as an option.
When Labour offers the same thing, the Lib Dems accuse it of being “pro-Brexit”. Labour’s sin, as far as they’re concerned, is to spell out what the second option in the referendum should be: a soft Brexit deal, based on principles set out by Labour, that could be rapidly negotiated with the EU in advance of the vote.
In contrast, the Lib Dems have been extremely vague about the terms of their preferred referendum. What should the Leave option be: Theresa May’s deal? Boris Johnson’s? “No Deal”? Or something else entirely?
That yawning gap in their proposal owes a lot to the nature of the People’s Vote (PV) campaign, which put the idea of another referendum on the agenda in the first place. The PV leadership liked to give the impression that once a second vote on Brexit was called, the outcome was a mere formality.
They glossed over the fact that Brexit is still very popular with those who voted Leave in 2016. In most polls over the last year, the Remain side has had the advantage, but not by a big margin.
If you think victory is certain, there’s no need to plan for defeat. However, a Remain victory is anything but certain, and Labour’s policy will protect against the worst outcomes. The Lib Dems are happy to walk a political tight-rope without a safety net, because they expect to land on someone else’s back if it all goes wrong.
Keeping the Options Open
Keeping things vague has another advantage for Swinson’s party. It leaves the door open for a coalition with the Conservatives in exchange for the promise of a referendum on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. Johnson is enough of an opportunist to go for that option if he felt it necessary.
As the experience of the coalition government between 2010 and 2015 showed, there’s a natural affinity between the Tories and the Lib Dems when it comes to economic policy. Brexit is the only issue that really divides them.
Chuka Umunna’s comments at the Lib Dem campaign launch were as clear as mud: “We are going out to be the biggest party in the House of Commons. It’s up to people to decide what happens after that.”
A second referendum is a risky enterprise under any circumstances. A second referendum organised by a Tory government, with a feral right-wing media framing the debate, would be a fiasco.
If something sounds too good to be true, there’s usually a reason for it. Swinson’s promise to make Brexit go away with one neat trick is as cynical as anything that was put on the side of a bus by the Leave campaign in 2016. To borrow a phrase from her former (and future?) coalition partners, Britain deserves better.