Liberal Democrats make Brexit central issue as party tries to rebuild

Leader Tim Farron to set out nuanced position on EU in conference closing speech
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron speaking at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton on Saturday © Getty

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The Liberal Democrats will try to rebuild their fortunes in the centre ground of British politics as the only party prepared to hold a fresh referendum on the terms of Brexit.

In his closing speech to the Lib Dem conference on Tuesday, Tim Farron will set out a nuanced position on the EU: that the party should accept the result of June’s referendum but should demand a new vote when Theresa May’s government has negotiated Britain’s departure.

“If the Tories say: ‘We’ve had enough referendums’, I say: ‘You started it!’ How dare they let bureaucrats in Whitehall and Brussels stitch up our future?” he will say.

He will also argue that George Osborne’s so-called punishment budget was a big factor in antagonising swing voters in June.

Kate Parminter, a Lib Dem peer who did not back Mr Farron for the leadership, said his passionate style was right for the times. “He is so furious about the referendum result, he’s very credible,” she said.

Mr Farron believes Brexit can be an issue to rebuild the party’s fortunes after an annihilation at the last general election. Some 18,000 people, including many aged under 30, joined the Lib Dems in the days after the Brexit referendum. Council by-election results have also improved.

But not everyone is convinced that the Lib Dems can regain the centre ground. One conference fringe event, entitled “Will 2080 be the year we get the next Lib Dem minister?”, pointed to a general mood of doubt.

Mr Farron has suggested that, in a second referendum, the Lib Dems could find themselves arguing against a “soft Brexit” deal alongside Ukip, which would probably reject the deal as too weak.

Some Lib Dems would prefer simply for the party to campaign at the next election to take Britain back into the EU — if Brexit is complete by 2020.

But the pro-EU stance is a significant electoral gamble. Support for the Lib Dems tends to be concentrated in areas that happen to be among the most Eurosceptic in Britain, including the south-west and Norfolk.

Vince Cable, the former business secretary, said he had “serious doubts” about Mr Farron’s call for a second referendum, arguing that it would be “disrespectful” of voters’ wishes.

The Lib Dems will also try to steal a march on Labour by opposing a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point and calling for higher taxes to fund the NHS.

A question and answer session with Mr Farron on Sunday © PA

Yet perhaps the biggest challenge for Mr Farron is getting a hearing from voters. His team admit that he needs a by-election victory to raise his profile, although the party’s old hands say that two of his predecessors, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, did not become widely known to voters until they fought a general election.

One by-election prospect is the former Lib Dem seat of Richmond Park, now held by the Tory Zac Goldsmith. Mr Goldsmith has said he will resign if the government approves a third runway at Heathrow. Alternatively, if a snap general election takes place, Mr Cable and other former Lib Dem MPs will stand, guaranteeing news coverage.

A high-profile defection from Labour would also help Mr Farron but none seems forthcoming. Talks of some kind of Lib-Lab realignment have not progressed, with moderate Labour MPs determined to stay and fight against Jeremy Corbyn.

On Tuesday, Mr Farron will instead try to appeal to centre-left voters turned off by Mr Corbyn.

A new commission will look at how to merge the NHS with adult social care — an approach previously championed by Labour under Ed Miliband. “If the only way to fund a health service that meets the needs of everyone is to raise taxes, Liberal Democrats will raise taxes,” Mr Farron will say, adding that the NHS needs “a lot more money”.

Even if the party is not able to implement such ideas in government, its influence may be felt in a different way. “The history of the Lib Dems is that if it’s a really good idea, someone will steal it,” said one senior figure.

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