It is no secret that the Liberal Democrats have historically benefited as the ‘none of the above’ option, countering the Conservatives in some marginals and Labour in others. Even more than Labour it has been the natural party of opposition in the last century.
In some cases the orange team has even acted against consensus between the two main parties. The classic example was Charles Kennedy’s opposition to the Iraq War, which both the governing Labour party and most Conservative MPs backed.
In the years since Kennedy, the Lib Dems have served as the junior partner in the coalition government and been battered at three subsequent general elections. At last count the party had a measly 11 seats in the House of Commons, down from around 60 in its heyday.
Brexit has been both kind and cruel to the party, handing it second place in the European parliamentary elections last year and recasting it as a single issue protest vote. Its brief leader Jo Swinson declared in last year’s general election that a vote for her was a vote against Brexit, and was deservedly rejected.
Under its current leader Ed Davey the Lib Dems plan to vote against the Brexit deal. As he explained in an email today to supporters, “With both Labour and the Conservatives voting for the deal, it will pass, and I felt it was important for our staunch opposition to Brexit to be recorded again.”
Davey might well have changed his tune had the vote between a deal or no deal Brexit been in doubt. Luckily for him the party can rejected its preferred option while claiming a moral high ground.
“Over the weeks and months to come, the real impact of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will become painfully clear,” he writes. “Our job is to hold the prime minister to account for the ways that his disastrous deal has let the country down.”
As I explained earlier this week, I have my doubts. While the economic forecasts look dreary, Tesco’s chairman has already said shoppers won’t see the damage in the cost of groceries. The costs of Brexit may prove illusive to the layman, with corresponding effects of the fortunes of anti-Brexit protestors.
If that happens Labour’s Keir Starmer will look wise for having drawn a line under Brexit while Davey made it central to Lib Dem identity. There is certainly a constituency of extreme remainers that Davey’s politicking will appeal to, but it’s less clear whether this will prove a good strategy as the country moves on.