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Stop Brexit

May 10, 2019 4:38 PM
By Stephen Bush - political editor in New Statesman
Lib Dem Euro candidates

East Midland Euro Candidates

The Liberal Democrats unveiled their manifesto for the European elections last night in Shoreditch. It was what we've come to expect from that party: a slick, well-put together event that said both explicitly thanks to the speech given by its leader Vince Cable and implicitly thanks to its smooth execution that they are the largest, most well-organised pro-Remain party and that anyone who wants to stop Brexit should back them at this European elections. They also chucked in plenty of Green lovebombing, talking up their own environmental credentials without mentioning - or more importantly criticising - their competitors in that space.

But all anyone can talk about is the party's election slogan: bollocks to Brexit. The broadcasters and most of the papers are talking about whether or not the party has gone too far with their manifesto's new message.

Is it a bit much? Anna Soubry certainly thinks so, telling the Times that there is no need to go into "that sort of territory".

Behind the slogan, the manifesto is a serious document with a commitment to the free movement of people, a zero carbon target for the whole of the European Union, measures to tackle crime across the bloc, and much else besides. But anyone who thinks that had the Liberal Democrats not opted for a somewhat fruity tagline we'd instead be talking about the finer points of the European Arrest Warrant or the benefits of wind power is kidding themselves.

Of course, the reason why Vince Cable can carry off with a little light cursing is that he is set to stand down as the man who led the Liberal Democrats to their best local election results in their history, whatever happens on 23 May. And if the polls are to be believed, the best is yet to come: his party is on the cusp of beating the Conservatives into third place in the European elections.

But the two things are linked. Look at the Green party: they also had the most successful local election results in their history yet they have received hardly any coverage as a result. They are being crowded out by the big two political parties, and by the Brexit Party and Change UK, who are shiny and new but whose case for that prominence is not yet proven.

It's not that the Liberal Democrats are a party on are on the up-and-up again despite being willing to say over-the-top things to get their issues talked about: it's they are a party who are on the up-and-up again because they are willing to say over-the-top things to get their issues talked about. The reality of course is that the word "bollocks" isn't on the party's direct mail and wasn't anywhere to be seen on the walls or podium - it's just a neat bit of political messaging that means that, thanks to some earnest discussions about whether or not the Liberal Democrats are lowering the tone means that the party's real anti-Brexit message is getting an airing it otherwise wouldn't from the mainstream press. It's the same with Caroline Lucas' championing of a meat tax - it gets her party in the headlines and allows them the space to talk about the rest of their programme in a way.

Soubry might think that there is no need to indulge in that kind of behaviour, but her reluctance to do so, and the wider unwillingness of her new party to come to terms with the different challenge that comes with minor party status, could well doom her party from the get-go.