Today’s debate on the party’s European policy at Liberal Democrat conference should be only the first of three steps in sorting out the party’s position. The very clear vote in favour of retaining the existing ‘referendum on terms of Brexit’ policy (rather than switching to seeing a general election result victory as being sufficient for dropping Brexit) means the party’s policy is settled.
But there’s more work to do. Two more steps are required.
One is to decide well in advance whether or not it is a complete deal breaker in any future hung Parliament and then act on that basis. Either option on this point could run the party into great difficulties if it isn’t chosen well in advance and heavily communicated to electors before they vote.
If it really is a deal breaker, people need to know that in advance – and not be shocked then if talks with Labour break down in a hung Parliament opening up, say, the possibility of a minority Conservative government continuing. But likewise if the decision that is made is for it not to be a deal breaker, that also needs to be clear – because it’ll be another slug of Lib Dem voters outraged to have voted for the party and then suddenly discovering it doing a deal which doesn’t secure a referendum.
Then the final step is to work out how to communicate the policy in a way that actually works – unlike the experience 2017 general election. For example, the idea of describing the party’s policy as being in favour of a third referendum was warmly received at party conference in the strategy debate. But does something that requires you to know about what happened in politics forty years ago really work? Perhaps it does, or perhaps it just baffles. Or even makes it sound worse (like we’re so keen on referendums that two isn’t enough). How Liberal Democrat members interpret he phrase isn’t what matters most; it’s what voters think that matters most when deciding how to communicate with them.
Or in other words: there’s an awful lot more for the party still to do.
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