“It is with great sadness that I’ve come to realise the Conservative Party is no longer the party I joined over 20 years ago.” These were the words of Sam Gyimah, announcing his defection to the Liberal Democrats. It is this tension that has permeated the recent defections of six MPs to the Lib Dems – to what extent are these MPs really born-again Liberals? Or are they using the transition of the party to the home of Remainers to protect their careers?
Since Chuka Umunna, the former rising star of New Labour, joined the Lib Dems in June, five other MPs from across the House of Commons have followed his lead. Angela Smith, Luciana Berger and Sarah Wollaston were all formerly members of TIG/Change UK/TIG for Change/Pink Floyd, and as such it was entirely expected that they would join the Lib Dems. Dr Philip Lee and Sam Gyimah, who both joined directly from the Conservatives without going through TIG purgatory, are the source of more contention among party members. Lee in particular was not popular with a large number of party activists, who having seen off Tim Farron as leader were then less than thrilled to welcome an MP with a lukewarm record on same-sex marriage and a particularly contentious opinion towards screening refugees for HIV. Lee’s defection prompted the chair of the LGBT+ Lib Dems to resign from the party in protest, and the poor handling of the row by party leadership led to Jo Swinson being heckled from the generally church-like party conference floor (although I can confirm swift shushing silenced the heckler).
However, Sam Gyimah’s defection should be just as troubling for the party faithful. I was present at his unveiling at party conference in Bournemouth, and despite the rapturous applause he received from the activist base, his speech at no point suggested he had ‘seen the light’ of liberalism. Gyimah’s speech detailed his journey within the Conservative party, leading up to his support for a second referendum and his expulsion from the parliamentary party, along with twenty of his colleagues, for supporting the Benn Act to prevent No Deal. At this point, Gyimah recalled that he spoke to Jo Swinson, a long-term friend and now party leader, and asked if the Lib Dems would stand aside in his East Surrey seat and allow him a better shot at being re-elected as an Independent MP. When this was refused, Gyimah suddenly realised that, in fact, the Lib Dems were the party for him. Gyimah is a noted social liberal, who had numerous problems with his local Conservative association, but his views on economic issues and other political stances are less in-tune with Lib Dem activists than former soft Labour MPs, like Chuka Umunna, who has become very popular with the membership very quickly.
Without the unifying hatred of Brexit, it is unclear how much the Lib Dems in their current incarnation would agree about. The Lib Dems have always been the most passionately pro-European party of the UK, and so their position now as the most passionately pro-Remain party is a logical step. The decision to campaign in a general election to revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit entirely, confirmed at conference, was not, however, a moment of blind joy for most party members. Many conference attendees understood the reservations of speakers against the plan to revoke, and for at least some, their support for the policy is based upon the assumption that the Lib Dems will not win a majority in Parliament, meaning that Revoke is instead a purely strategic move. Polling since the change in policy does not seem to reflect any kind of backlash from the voters, at least so far. After all, how many Lib Dem voters wanted a second referendum so they could vote to leave again? By cutting out the ‘middle-man’ of a referendum, the Lib Dems have stolen Labour’s conference thunder.
Despite the focus on Brexit, it would be unfair to characterise, as some have, the Lib Dems as a single-issue party in the same fashion as the Brexit Party (who are of course completely different from Nigel Farage’s UKIP and their previous calls for American-style healthcare, for example). Over the course of the conference, plenty of distinctive and exciting domestic policy was passed. A practical plan to make Britain ‘net zero carbon’ by 2045; a re-training fund for all to deal with the looming spectre of technology-based unemployment; trialling guaranteed minimum income (a modified form of Universal Basic Income) – all these are practical, evidence-based and would make Britain a better country. The question that remains is to what extent the New Lib Dems support these policies – and how much Brexit is doing to paper over the cracks.