The Lib Dems remain characteristically upbeat following Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election today. Despite being decimated by the Conservatives’ decapitation strategy in 2015, there are several reasons for Tim Farron and his party to be quietly confident in adding significantly to their rump of nine MPs.
Firstly, the numbers are beginning to turn in their favour. A combination of Labour struggles and Tory Euroscepticism has allowed the Liberal Democrats to position themselves unashamedly as the party of ‘in’, speaking both for the 48% who voted Remain, as well as a portion of Leave voters who do not support the Government’s pursuit of a so-called ‘hard Brexit’. In fiercely pro-remain Richmond Park, for example, their newest MP Sarah Olney overturned a 25,000 majority to oust ardent Brexiteer Zac Goldsmith. While in Witney, David Cameron’s former constituency, and the bluest of blue seats, they increased their share of the vote to 30%, up from just 7% last time out.
The Party believes this is good evidence, coupled with recent leaked Conservative polling, that they can reclaim some of the Tory-Lib Dem marginals in London and the South West lost at the end of the Coalition Government.
The Lib Dems can also point to a string of recent council by-election victories, including, conversely, in areas that voted to leave the European Union as an indicator of their reviving fortunes nationally. Indeed, polls predict that they could win more than 100 seats at the May 4 local elections.
Secondly, and away from election results, the Lib Dems can point to a growing membership and increased donations. Membership has doubled to 85,000 since May 2015, with more than 1,000 new members signed up today. There is clear evidence remain-backing donors are switching from Labour to the Liberal Democrats. In the last quarter of 2016, for example, they out-fundraised Jeremy Corbyn’s party for the first time, including a one-off donation of £1million. Whether or not they have the resources to gear up properly for this election, though, is debatable.
What is clear though is that, after 18 months in the political wilderness, the party’s contrasting position to the Tories and Labour on Brexit, and strategy to be the ‘real opposition’ to Theresa May’s Government is beginning to cut through. Tim Farron – so long ‘Tim Who?’ – is also becoming more visible on Britain’s television screens. This strong press operation and fierce ground war – see the latest brutal Labour attack leaflet in Manchester Gorton – continues to suggest they will to punch above their weight on June 8. As the general election campaign gets underway, expect Lib Dems to stick with the messaging and positioning that has got them, if not back in the big time, but certainly knocking on the door.