EU Affairs

British Liberals Look for Future Directions Amid Brexit Turmoil

As Brexit discussions move into the final stretch, the Liberal Democrats held their first-ever online party conference last weekend. Although uncertainties about the UK’s future relationship with the EU remain, the Lib Dems made the first steps to define their post-Brexit agenda.

As EU and UK negotiators are meeting for the last round of scheduled talks on a future trade agreement, the Brexit negotiations are entering the final phase. Although EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier briefed EU ministers that there was “a more open atmosphere at the negotiating table”, significant differences of opinion remain, especially in the field of state aid to businesses. In addition, trust in the UK’s commitment to a deal hit an all-time low after Downing Street’s shock announcement earlier this summer that it would seek to overrule key parts of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement.

Looking Ahead – Lib Dems Conference

In the same week, glimpses could be seen of what the post-Brexit political landscape could look like. Amid the turmoil of the trade deal discussions and the UK’s Coronavirus response, the UK Liberal Democrats came together last weekend (25-28 September) for their first-ever online conference.

The conference agenda featured issues such as racial justice, mental health, the creation of a “federal” UK, and, of course,… Brexit. After a disappointing result in the 2019 General Election, in which the party failed to capitalise on its Brexit position, the Lib Dems are now seeking to rebuild their party platform and formulate a new vision for a post-Brexit, and post-COVID, Britain. No small task for a party that has invested so much of its political capital in a single issue over the past years. 

The conference also saw the first public speech by the newly-elected party leader, Ed Davey. In a very personal speech, Davey spoke of his own experience as a long-term carer for family members and presented the Lib Dems as a force for a more caring, greener and fairer UK. His speech reflected the need for the party to build a broader platform and it sought to reconcile several different strands of liberals within, and outside, the party.

Relationship with the EU

Nonetheless, at the conference the relationship with Europe remained firmly in focus. A frontbench motion that sought to bring together several Brexit-related issues provoked an engaging discussion about the aim of rejoining the EU at a later stage. Eventually, the issue was settled with an amendment which was passed saying that the party will support a longer-term objective of UK membership of the EU.

The discussion about the EU reaccession touched on the core of the Lib Dems’ challenges for the coming years. To become a stronger political force again, the party will have to find a way to bring together divided groups of voters.

In this light, key challenges ahead for the Lib Dems are:  

– Getting back to basics: As signalled at the conference, more attention must be paid to domestic issues that were overshadowed by the cacophony of news surrounding Corona and Brexit. Several motions were passed on issues such as a green recovery, the Rule of Law, racial justice and a universal basic income (which is now a Lib Dem policy). All point towards a more progressively liberal agenda for the years to come. It will be a challenge, however, to bring these positions together in a comprehensive and recognisable domestic agenda.

– Getting the EU relationship right: With gloomy prospects for a comprehensive trade deal, the Lib Dems have the potential to tap into three different voter groups: hardcore remainers, soft remainers and soft leavers. Finding a position that accommodates all three groups is difficult, but not impossible. The adopted motion on rejoining the EU is a good step forward towards finding a balance between the views of these different groups.

But Patience is a Virtue

The next general elections will take place in 2024 – and that might be a good thing. It gives the party the time to not only build a new platform, but also influence the direction in which the national discussion is heading towards 2024. After three disappointing election results and four leadership changes in the past five years, a period of stability would be more than welcome. But, with so much of the attention being dedicated to the day-to-day antics of the current government, it will be difficult to stay focussed on the long game. 

Last weekend’s conference offered a modest beginning in a new direction. And after the fireworks of last year, it looks like the balanced approach is the way to go for the Lib Dems to find their way up again. With time on their side, anything is possible now.

Jeroen Dobber

European Affairs Manager & Head of FNF Security Hub