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Why the Liberal Democrat Brexit fightback threatens Theresa May

Liberal Democrats are staging a comeback and this is a problem for the Conservatives

Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images
Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and Sarah Olney, winner of the Richmond Park by-election, speak to the media following her victory. Lib Dems celebrated an upset win after ousting ex-Tory MP Zac Goldsmith

Is it time for the Liberal Democrats to stage a comeback?

The Lib Dems are carving out a niche for themselves as the party that still opposes Brexit.

They’re a little bit coy about it. When pressed, party leader Tim Farron insists that they’re not trying to overturn the result of last year’s referendum.

But he also wants to have a new referendum on what should happen once we quit. This is the deal that Prime Minister Theresa May negotiates with the EU.

At the moment, the plan is for the Prime Minister to put the deal to the House of Commons for a vote, maybe in around 18 months time.

What the Lib Dems want is for the public, rather than just MPs, to vote on this deal, in a new referendum.

And one of the options in the referendum would be to call the whole thing off and just stay in the EU after all.

So in practice - even though they choose their words carefully - the Lib Dems want to offer the UK another chance to stay in the EU.

Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson has mocked the Lib Dems for pursuing a 48 per cent strategy. He meant that they had a policy which could only ever appeal to the minority of voters - 48 per cent - who backed ‘remain’ in the EU referendum.

Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Leader of the Liberal Democrats Tim Farron

Perhaps Mr Watson’s comments were really meant to be a warning to any Labour MPs or activists who wanted their own party to take a similar approach.

And in fact, he was being generous.

Polling by YouGov found that 25 per cent of voters say they opposed leaving the EU - but now think the Government has a duty to respect the result of the referendum and take us out.

Just 21 per cent of voters support a second referendum, or just ignoring last year’s vote entirely.

Even so, if the Lib Dems won 21 per cent of the vote in a general election then they’d be pretty pleased. It may be enough to make them a major political force again.

In the 2010 general election they gained 23 per cent of the vote, won 57 seats and found themselves in Government.

In 2015, of course, their share of the vote collapsed, to just eight per cent, and they won only eight seats. So Mr Farron wouldn’t complain about getting 21 per cent next time.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that YouGov’s polling is accurate, or that every die-hard remainer will vote Lib Dem.

But there are signs the Lib Dem approach is working. The party not only won the Richmond by-election in London, giving them a ninth MP, but they’ve been quietly winning council seats across the country.

Brexit may be responsible for the strange revival of Liberal England.

That doesn’t mean the Lib Dems are going to make the type of breakthrough they are hoping for - allowing them to replace Labour as the major part of the centre-left in opposition to the Tories.

But they could win back some of the seats they lost in 2015 in areas where they have traditionally been strong. And that does matter.

With Labour in such a poor state, it’s easy to forget that the Tories made gains at the last general election at the expense of the Lib Dems, not Labour.

That’s why the Conservatives have a majority in the House of Commons now.

Once the votes were counted in 2015, the Conservatives held 35 seats which were not represented by the party in 2010, as a report by the House of Commons library explains.

Of these 35 MPs, just eight won seats previously represented by Labour, while 27 won seats previously represented by the Liberal Democrats.

But at the same time, Labour took 10 seats which had been won by the Tories in 2010.

So net Conservative gains came at the expense of the Lib Dems.

It’s tempting to look at the opinion polls and assume that the Conservatives will take large numbers of Labour seats at the next election, and this may turn out to be what happens.

But when Prime Minister Theresa May is considering her options - and considering whether there is a case for an early general election - she will be aware that there’s a real chance of the Tories losing many of the seats they gained last time around.

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