Analysis

Brexit: despite Bregret at an all-time high, the Liberal Democrats are keeping quiet about the EU

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Why - with Brexit regret at an all time high - is the UK’s most pro-European party not in favour of rejoining the EU?

Amidst a funny and emotional speech, one of the longest sets of applause was when Sir Ed Davey announced the Lib Democrats would “fix our broken relationship with Europe”.

He then pledged to “tear down trade barriers” and “get a better deal for Britain”. However the word “rejoin” was noticeably absent from Davey’s speech. 

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The Liberal Democrat leader has not committed, as his predecessor Jo Swinson did, to cancel Brexit - even though that would likely have got the biggest cheer of the speech. When I’ve asked Lib Dem election candidates about what relationship they would like with the EU they’ve dodged the question.

Why then - with Brexit regret at an all time high - is the UK’s most pro-European party not in favour of rejoining the EU? 

Sir Ed Davey. Credit: GettySir Ed Davey. Credit: Getty
Sir Ed Davey. Credit: Getty | Getty

‘I’m devastated but I don’t regret trying’

In 2019, the Liberal Democrats made revoking Brexit and rejoining the EU - without a second referendum - a major feature of its campaign. After the referendum in 2016, Sarah Olney beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park, south-west London, with a 30% swing - which was put down to a strong remain vote.

Jo Swinson, the Lib Dems new leader in 2019, led the party to adopting the hard-line rejoin policy, which was criticised by heavyweights such as Vince Cable and Sir Norman Lamb, who said it was “playing with fire”.

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However Swinson defended it, saying: “I don’t think you could accuse us of not being upfront about wanting to stop Brexit.”

Despite the Lib Dems increasing their vote share, they lost 10 MPs including Swinson herself and Brexit spokesperson Tom Brake. Speaking about the Brexit policy, Swinson said: “Obviously it hasn’t worked. I, like you, am devastated about that. But I don’t regret trying.”

At that election Boris Johnson won a big majority campaigning on the simple slogan of “get Brexit done”.

Jo Swinson reacts after losing her seat in the 2019 election. Credit: GettyJo Swinson reacts after losing her seat in the 2019 election. Credit: Getty
Jo Swinson reacts after losing her seat in the 2019 election. Credit: Getty | Getty

Lib Dems' 'detailed plan' for Brexit

It’s hard to understate how much the country has changed since 2019. We’ve had a global pandemic, Russia has invaded Ukraine and the economy has been plunged into crisis - with inflation, mortgage rates and energy bills soaring.

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In September 2019, Britain leaving the EU was one of the three most important issues facing the country according to 73% of people, with health coming second with 31% of people. 

Whereas now, just 17% think Brexit is one of the biggest issues in the UK, with the economy, health, immigration, the environment, housing and crime all being named by more Britons.

As such, the Lib Dems have tweaked their policy offering - and are now focusing on flipping Tory seats in the Blue Wall over the cost of living crisis, sewage and net zero. 

So at conference, while Sir Ed Davey spoke about Europe for quite some time - he didn’t mention rejoining the EU once. He said: “Something we have always been proud to champion, even when no one else even dared whisper it. Fixing our broken relationship with Europe.

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“The Conservatives botched the deal with Europe, and it’s been a disaster for the UK. They sold out British farmers and fishers. They tied up British business in red tape. And they pushed up food prices in our supermarkets.”

Mid Bedfordshire Lib Dem candidate Emma Holland-Lindsay with party leader Sir Ed Davey. Credit: PAMid Bedfordshire Lib Dem candidate Emma Holland-Lindsay with party leader Sir Ed Davey. Credit: PA
Mid Bedfordshire Lib Dem candidate Emma Holland-Lindsay with party leader Sir Ed Davey. Credit: PA | PA

Davey added: “Only we have set out a detailed plan to tear down those trade barriers, fix our broken relationship with Europe and get a better deal for Britain. Yes – only we.”

The Lib Dems’ “detailed plan” says that after “the trading relationship is deepened, and the ties of trust and friendship are renewed” to rejoin the single market. However, speaking to Lib Dem candidates they seem reluctant to talk about this.

Emma Holland-Lindsay, who’s hoping to replace Nadine Dorries in Mid Bedfordshire, dodged the question when I asked her simply - what relationship should the UK have with the EU? She told me: “My focus on this election is delivering on the priorities for the people of Mid Bedfordshire, when I’m knocking on doors primarily what they’re focusing on is being let down by the Conservatives. 

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“People do accept that the deal we’ve got with this Conservative Party is not delivering for people, however actually my top priority is about things like healthcare services and the cost of living crisis - because those are the things that people in Mid Beds are really concerned about, and they’re seeing the impact of every single day.”

Clearly the scars of 2019 mean Lib Dems are reluctant to talk about Brexit in too much detail.

Bregret at an all-time high

While the Lib Dems have rowed back on their Brexit policy, Bregret - Brexit regret - has reached an all-time high. According to YouGov, 57% of voters believe Brexit was a mistake while just 32% thought Brexit was the correct decision. And almost half of voters want a second referendum in the next 10 years.

Despite this, Seb Wride, head of polling at the think tank Public First, thinks the Lib Dems have been right to ditch their old policy of rejoin. He told NationalWorld: “It’s a mistake to read the current lead in polls that pro-Remain sentiment has over pro-Leave as evidence parties should be campaigning for rejoin. 

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“A majority of Leave voters believe that Brexit will work out in the long-run, and are more likely to think that Brexit was bungled than doomed to fail. 

“Calling for a new referendum would be a risk for any of the parties, opening them up to all sorts of arguments about the concessions the UK would need to make to the EU, ignoring the key issues at the moment, and adding further fuel to the view that politicians these days cannot be trusted to deliver.”

Wride explained: “The important question is what voters do the Lib Dems have to gain through proposing something like rejoining. 2019 Conservative Remainers are quite different to 2019 Lib Dem remainers - it’s closer to a third of them who oppose another referendum. 

“Chances are, if the Lib Dems took a strong pro-EU stance they’d mainly be preaching to the choir, at a time when they have an opportunity to be winning new voters over from the major parties who are seen as untrustworthy.”

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This appears to be Holland-Lindsay’s strategy in Mid Bedfordshire, who told me: “The number one top issue is people are really feeling fed up with the Conservatives. So many life-long Conservatives have absolutely had enough of this government, and want to see a change.”

And Wride doesn’t think this will impact the Lib Dems come the general election. “If you’re a Remain voter who cares more about that than other political issues at the moment, I’m not sure which party you would be voting for,” he told NationalWorld. 

“But you’re also in a very small minority. If we look at those who currently consider Brexit a top issue, they made up a quarter of the Lib Dems’ 2019 vote, but more like 15% of the Lib Dems’ current vote. 

“Even putting aside the economy and the NHS, the Lib Dems would appeal to more of their base today by talking about climate change and housing than Brexit based on current polls."

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