On Thursday night, two devastating political realities emerged for the Liberal Democrats. First, we had lost our leader, Jo Swinson, far too early. In office for just 144 days, Jo’s premiership was dominated by the unexpected: defections, prorogation, membership surges and finally, a Brexit election. The second reality is that Britain will leave the European Union in just over one month.
Of course there will be time to assess the pros and cons of our unusually presidential campaign and our ambition to put forward a ‘Liberal Democrat candidate for prime minister’. Under Sal Brinton and Ed Davey’s joint interim leadership, this moment of reflection is sure to be full and frank.
But what is clear, from my time campaigning in Sheffield, Cheltenham, Worcestershire and East Dunbartonshire is that, as with every election, the party membership is the passionate, committed and disciplined driver of our liberal movement. It is the Liberal Democrat’s strongest asset.
But as we look into a post-Brexit future, what kind of leadership can we expect over the course of the next parliament?
After the 2015 general election, the Lib Dems were widely derided for returning eight white male Members of Parliament to the House. (Another cruel feature of our First-Past-The-Post electoral system). And yet today, nearly two thirds of our MPs are women and eight were first elected after the coalition.
At the spring conference in York earlier this year, Vince Cable’s proposed leadership reforms were defeated at vote. Part of the package was to give non-MPs the chance to run for the top job. Alongside a new supporters scheme, the thinking behind this proposal was to transform the party into a broader political movement, encouraging new talent to emerge from beyond Westminster. In light of Jo’s defeat, some elements of this package could well be reconsidered at the next conference in March. By then however, the party will have already elected a new leader.
With many of our MPs having relatively little parliamentary experience and time to establish a strong reputation in the party, Jo has no obvious successor. As deputy, Ed Davey clearly has some advantage over other potential candidates. But as a fellow member of the coalition government, Ed risks receiving the same criticism aimed at Jo these past six weeks for her voting record on welfare and austerity.
Of course we mustn’t underestimate the immense burden that comes with leading our party. But I hope a wide and diverse field of candidates put themselves forward.
The primary challenge for whoever takes over in the new year is to redefine our purpose in a post-Brexit Britain. The 2016 referendum helped reshape our role in British politics and move on from five years of coalition. But should we make the wrong choices in the months ahead, our prior determination to ‘own’ the Remain brand could seriously backfire. We must find a way to move beyond the slogans of ‘bollocks to Brexit’ and ‘stop Brexit’ we embraced so strongly just a few months ago.
At heart, we are the natural party for pro-Europeans. This will not and should not change. But in wiping out the centre-ground, Thursday’s election is evidence that our existence at the front of the British politics is by no means guaranteed.
In the run up to the election, I had been critical of the lack of a strong narrative behind our campaign. What tied our policies together? What story could we as Liberal Democrats tell about our country’s future and people’s role in it? But all of this is sure to form part of our election review. Now is not the time to go into detail.
The next few months are critical for Britain and British liberalism. We may become the party of the (UK) union. We may well roll back on our refusal to change the party’s core structure. We know this country needs strong and rational liberal voices as we approach a new political, economic and cultural era.
But we need to convince this country that it still needs the Liberal Democrats.
We can. We must. We will.