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The Big Brexit Bet That Isn’t Paying Off

Therese Raphael

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For many anti-Brexit centrists in the U.K., it makes no sense that Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats are doing so poorly in the polls. If you’re unhappy about Britain quitting the European Union under Boris Johnson and you’re unexcited by the Labour Party’s quasi-Marxist economic experiments, then who else do you give your vote to on Dec. 12?

The center has been abandoned by Johnson’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour; unfortunately, the Lib Dems have failed to fill it, not least because of their uncharacteristically radical (and undemocratic) promise to scrap Brexit altogether — without another referendum.

For a time this year, events seemed encouraging for Swinson. The Lib Dems came second to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the European Parliamentary election, winning 20% of the vote. They then nabbed 700 new council seats in local elections and benefited from eight defections of members of Parliament from other parties. Their new leader put out leaflets saying “Jo Swinson, Britain’s Next Prime Minister.”

Indeed, the whole reason the U.K. is having an early election is because Swinson decided, along with the Scottish National Party, to back Johnson’s call for one. Without that decision, he would have remained in charge of a lame duck minority government and his Brexit deal would have come in for some real scrutiny. Her decision was always a gamble, and one that looks like failing.

“Why do you risk going down in the history books as the party leader that paved the way for Boris Johnson to win an overall majority, deliver his Brexit and govern for the next five years?” the BBC’s Andrew Neil asked Swinson in October. “You’ve given a Tory prime minister the Christmas present he craved.” 

Swinson batted away the suggestion that she had zero chance of becoming prime minister, citing Donald Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote. “Nothing is certain,” she insisted. But when she met Neil again for an interview this week, the change of tone was clear. Swinson is no longer running for Downing Street.

Her party now polls 13% on average. A YouGov survey, using methodology that was accurate in the last election (known as MRP) gives it only one extra seat in Parliament. U.K. Polls are notoriously unreliable, but the party too seems to have scaled back its ambitions. According to Who Targets Me, which tracks campaign ads, the Lib Dems have launched 47 new Facebook ads targeting a very narrow list of seats. In Swinson’s Scottish seat in East Dunbartonshire, her party is running defensive ads, asking voters to “stop the SNP” rather than make its leader prime minister.

In their favor, the Lib Dems have well-established local operations, so their ground game in the constituencies they’re targeting is fairly strong. They come a close second to Labour and well ahead of the Tories in online ad spending. It’s unclear, though, how much help either factor will bring.

An analysis by the Telegraph newspaper identifies 13 Lib Dem target seats where a swing in the vote of 7.5% or less would give Swinson’s party a win; nine are in Conservative hands and most backed remain in the referendum. But the 21 seats already held by the Lib Dems aren’t even considered safe. This doesn’t herald the kind of election night Swinson had in mind when she agreed to a vote.

Three problems contribute to her troubles; two of her own making. The first was Swinson’s decision taken to adopt a policy of revoking Brexit if she won an election outright. While the plan was backed at the party’s conference, there was no great enthusiasm for it.

Revoke was a risky choice for a party meant to occupy the pragmatic center; far from uniting remainers, it struck many voters as undemocratic. How could a party put in power by less than half the popular vote overturn a referendum with a 52% majority? Swinson has struggled to answer that. 

Second, if the big strategic decision has gone wrong, so have some tactical ones. Swinson has been forced to defend some creative bar charts that showed her party practically drawing even with the Conservatives. It turns out the polling question had asked a small sample of local voters in North East Somerset which party they’d vote for if only the Tories and the Lib Dems were in contention. A similar thing occurred in Hastings and Rye. British actor Hugh Grant had to correct the record when the party celebrated his support for the Lib Dems; he was merely campaigning for tactical voting to keep out Johnson and his Brexit deal.

For a party trying to prove it’s more trustworthy than the Tories and more competent than Labour, none of this inspires confidence. It hasn’t helped that the campaign was centered around Swinson herself, a virtual unknown when she became leader. The declining ratings for her and the party will encourage voters who want their ballot to count to return to one of the main parties. 

I wrote in July that Swinson’s success would depend largely on Johnson faltering, which hasn’t yet happened with less than a week of campaigning to go. That’s because of the third problem the Liberal Democrats face: the U.K. electoral system, which the party has long wanted to change. It’s a winner-takes-all approach, where small parties are elbowed out of the way by the big two. That pattern seems about to be repeated.

To contact the author of this story: Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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