The Liberal Democrats regard themselves as a party in the ascendancy and the atmosphere at this year’s Conference was buoyant. Members and Parliamentarians alike feel there is momentum going in to a potential general election, as they believe that the party’s clear and unequivocal view on Brexit will successfully set them apart.
Coupled with this, is a belief in the energy and enthusiasm of the new leader, Jo Swinson. While Sir Vince Cable is still held in high-regard, the party has been re-energised by Swinson’s appointment. There is a genuine belief amongst party faithfuls that they are on the brink of a breakthrough. However, there are tensions emerging over both Brexit and the recruitment of a number of defecting MPs.
It is safe to say that Brexit – while anathema to its values – has re-energised the party. All over the Conference centre, members and delegates were discussing Brexit and the impact that the party’s stance would have on its electoral fortunes. Every speech and policy motion debated in the main auditorium, on whatever topic, was brought back to Brexit.
The desire to stop Brexit is, of course, what has dominated the headlines from this Conference. The party voted – overwhelmingly – to make revoking Article 50, without a second referendum, its policy in its upcoming manifesto. In an attempt to counter-act accusations of being undemocratic, the Party argues that revocation would only happen if the Lib Dems were returned as a majority government.
However, there are rumblings of discontent. Retiring MP, Norman Lamb, has strongly criticised the move. There were whispers at fringe events that the policy-shift may end-up discouraging some of those wavering former Tory voters from backing the Party. It remains to be seen if the supposed clarity offered by the policy-shift comes at the expense of widening the party’s potential voting coalition.
This year’s Conference was also the first for a number of new MPs and it was clear that the defection of six MPs has excited members. Chuka Umunna’s speech on Monday morning received a rapturous reception in the auditorium, as members warmly welcomed an MP who they view as having real star power. The same was true for a Q&A event with former Labour MP, Luciana Berger, which had queues outside the doors.
However, the recruitment of new MPs from other parties comes with issues. Members are aware of this tension; when Berger was asked about how she intends to work with former Tories such as Philip Lee and Sam Gymiah she responded that they had shared values. Such a response works while everything is currently viewed through a Brexit prism. However, future tensions about the party’s wider policies – on issues such as tax, welfare and health amongst others – are a possibility. If these divisions aren’t bridged in the long-term, the risk of becoming a single-issue party is a real one.