The party's Brexit spokesperson in the House of Lords said "The leadership has got this wrong"
There has a been a bubbling disquiet at this year’s Liberal Democrat conference. There are grumblings when party members gather around the venue about disagreements with the party’s position. The party leader – Ed Davey – was even heckled from the floor during a Q&A session with members.
The issue that is causing this disquiet? Europe. A portion of the party’s membership are upset about Davey and other leading figure’s perceived failure to take a sufficiently strong pro-European position, or to articulate the case for rejoining the European Union.
That disquiet risks erupting into open rebellion and bitter division. On the conference’s penultimate day, activists spilled into an overheated hotel room to attend a fringe meeting hosted by the pro-European group Best for Britain. The room is so full that people are crammed into the corridor outside to listen in.
Fringe meetings at party conferences are often opportunities for disgruntled members to voice their concern about the directions of their parties. What makes this meeting different is that it wasn’t being addressed by rebellious backbenchers or low ranking members. Instead, the panel included a former Lib Dem leader, a parliamentary candidate in one of the party’s top target constituencies, and – astonishingly – the Lib Dem’s spokesperson on Brexit in the House of Lords.
“The leadership has got this wrong”, declares Baroness Ludford bluntly, adding, “I’m afraid to say there is a gap between the membership and the leadership on this”. That is a pretty significant claim in and of itself for a party famed for its Europhilia. It becomes an utterly extraordinary claim, given Ludford serves as the House of Lords spokesperson on Brexit for the party.
While other panellists are a little more measured, it is clear there is anger among some senior figures within the party over Davey’s strategy on the EU. Vince Cable, who was leader of the Liberal Democrats from 2017-19 and served as business secretary under the coalition government, called on party members to campaign on the issue internally.
Referring to the discussion at the meeting on how to influence the leadership to be more vocal on Europe and openly call for rejoining the EU, Cable said: “I think what is happening here is absolutely right”. He went on to call on members to use “Lib Dem websites” and “party meetings”, to “shout” about Europe.
Josh Babarinde was also on the panel. He’s the Lib Dem candidate for Eastbourne, a parliamentary constituency the party has previously held and one which will no doubt be a key target for the party at the next election.
He told the meeting that the Lib Dems need to “keep the flame alive” on Britain’s membership of the EU, and that the party should “definitely never abandon” the idea of Britain rejoining. “We’re absolutely right to be aspiring to using the words ‘rejoin the European Union’ in the future.”
These pro-European sentiments were met with nods, applause and cheers from the audience in the room. That audience – admittedly self selecting – voiced major disagreement about the party’s official position and willingness to talk in a pro-European tone.
Two activists expressed outrage that the conference’s main auditorium did not have an event on Europe. One – a Lib Dem councillor – said, “Why the hell wasn’t [the fringe] on the main stage? And why is Ed Davey and the leadership team not listening to those powerful arguments and the reaction from the people in this far too small room?”
Another activist said that failing to be vocally pro-European could see the Liberal Democrats “lose members and lose activists in large numbers”. Other members reported that the leadership is being “very very hard” on not shifting the current position Europe, with the party seeking not to alienate voters in Tory swing seats.
With a general election around the corner, the Lib Dems’ position on Europe – as on other issues – is likely to come under increased scrutiny. Right now, the party’s leadership appears keen to straddle two positions – talking about closer relations with Europe without putting off soft Tory Brexiteers by openly suggesting the party would like to see Britain re-enter the European Union.
Lib Dem councillor Edna Murphy expressed the risk of this position at the meeting. She said that in recent media interviews, Davey has looked “shifty” on Europe. That’s the sort of label that you definitely don’t want to stick.
Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward