Following Theresa May’s Brexit speech this week, we know what will (almost certainly) be the defining Parliamentary vote of this political generation – the vote promised in Parliament on the terms of the Brexit deal she and her government negotiates.
Just as with the vote on going to war in Iraq, there’s a side-debate to be had about how much practical difference the outcome of the vote will make. (The US was going to war in Iraq anyway; depending on the circumstances, a vote against the Brexit deal may result in the UK leaving the EU anyway.)
But as an occasion when every MP will be forced to take a yes or no position in a stark, simple way, with the public – which usually pays very little attention to the details of votes – paying attention, the vote will be loaded with political significance.
All the more so than in the case of Iraq because although that vote split Labour, it was a split that did not threaten the future of the party. This time round the vote is that much more dangerous for the Labour Party because of all the strains caused by other issues prior to it.
But it’s a vote not without danger for the Liberal Democrats either. One danger is that – in contrast to the party’s unity over the Iraq vote – the party’s MPs split and do not all vote the same way.
Given how little attention the public pay to the details of politics day to day, it’s important not to underestimate just how dominant such a split could be for the public’s view of the party. ‘Those Lib Dems used to be in favour of Europe but then they couldn’t make up their minds and a chunk of them sold out’.
Just as tuition fees turned from an effective campaigning position to a disaster politically for the party, so too Europe – for all its obvious campaigning benefits for the party at the moment (hello, Sarah Olney) – could similarly turn to dust if the Parliamentary Party is not more united than it has been so far on Europe since the referendum.
The other danger is not a split amongst MPs but a split away from voters. For if the Liberal Democrat recovery continues but is done in a return to the old ways of not having a core vote, that will be a recovery based on a diffuse, diverse coalition – once which, as we saw in 2010, cannot withstand the pressures of being seen to firmly back one side rather than the other in a highly polarising political choice.
There is a warning from a previous, less high profile, European vote. When in John Major’s time as Prime Minister the Maastricht Treaty was going through Parliament there was one key vote in which the then pro-EU Conservative government faced defeat from Euro rebels. The Liberal Democrats voted with the Tories in favour of the Maastricht Treaty. This was a vote in favour of the party’s long-standing pro-Europeanism. This was a vote where voting against the government wouldn’t bring it down (as the PM would just call a confidence vote after defeat). And yet the mere act of voting with the Conservatives in a high profile vote that the Conservatives might lose was highly controversial with even Liberal Democrat members.
It was a brief enough episode not to bring the party lasting harm, but it was a controversial enough episode to give the clear warning about the need for the Liberal Democrats to build a larger core vote, based on positive support for the party’s values, rather than over-rely on a coalition of those who don’t like Labour, those who don’t like the Tories and those who love our local activism.
That sort of coalition has never withstood well key moments of political pressure before. If all we do is build it anew again, it will fall apart again in the face of that coming Brexit Parliamentary vote.