Europe

LibDem messaging on Brexit

There’s a paradox about people’s position on Brexit. Much as a clear majority of voters would
support Remain (or Rejoin) in a new referendum, knowing what they know now, many of them
nevertheless have no desire to go back to the divisiveness of the pre- and post-referendum period.
Many families, friendship groups, communities and social groupings have been riven by Brexit; some
people are still not on speaking terms with those on the other side. It’s little wonder that the
Remain/Leave division is still the most powerful in British politics.

That makes the route back into the EU one that has to be handled with great delicacy – a question
that we explored in the third episode of the Green Book Pod series of discussions on key issues for
the Liberal Democrats, available on Lib Dem Podcast via the usual platforms and also here on
YouTube.

Synopsis

Some of the evidence for the paradox was presented by Luke Tryl, UK Director of the think tank
‘More in Common’, that takes its name from the quote from the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox: we
are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us. He told the podcast
that public opinion is increasingly swinging towards the belief that Brexit was a mistake and that the
UK should rejoin the EU, but focus groups reveal little enthusiasm for another referendum
campaign, thanks to the horrors of 2016–19.

Professor Anand Menon, director of the ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ programme, added that, while
there is mounting evidence of the damage caused by Brexit, it would be dangerous to think that
rejoining will be easy. The EU has suffered much less than the UK from Brexit, so its incentives to
renegotiate the relationship are not strong (the episode was recorded two days before Ursula von
der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, claimed that the UK could rejoin the EU).
The roadmap set out in the 2022 Liberal Democrat policy document Rebuilding Trade and
Cooperation with Europe presents the steps a UK government could take now to create the
preconditions for rejoining, and only step four – rejoining the Single Market – requires serious
political and economic heavy lifting.

Even for people not convinced of the case for rejoining, these steps can be defended in their own
right, as essential to economic prosperity and a healthier relationship with our nearest neighbours.
Anand wondered, however, whether Single Market membership outside the EU – Britain being a
rule-taker rather than a rule-maker – was likely to be politically attractive, and thought an outright
campaign to rejoin might make a stronger case.

Two Lib Dem PPCs – Lisa Smart from Hazel Grove and Caroline Voaden from Totnes (a former MEP
who led the Lib Dem group in the European Parliament 2019–20) – tackled the question of whether
the party’s campaigning and messaging is right largely to avoid mentioning the topic. Lisa argued
that it is: we need to talk about, and present solutions to, the issues people bring up on the
doorsteps, such as cost of living, the health service, crumbling schools. Our EU policy should be
promoted in the right circumstances – if people raise it, or for an article in the New European, for
example – but we should be reactive rather than proactive.

Caroline pointed out, however, that many of the problems that people do raise, such as shortages of
NHS staff, are derived directly from Brexit. Furthermore, some of the voters she canvasses – in a
leave-voting seat – raise Brexit with her without prompting, for example because of the problems
it’s caused for the fishing industry.

Caroline also argued for our leader and spokespeople to be completely honest about our position,
when the topic arises, and to focus on the benefits of our approach. Anand confirmed that when he
watched Lib Dem figures interviewed on the issue, he couldn’t make up his mind whether they were
essentially ditching the policy or keeping it but being slightly ashamed of it.

This discussion, ably chaired by Julie Smith, the party’s defence spokesperson in the House of Lords,
was an excellent one, providing much food for thought, whether or not you agree with the party’s
current position. You can download it on all the main podcast channels (search for Lib Dem Podcast),
or watch it online on YouTube; this link will also take you to the first two episodes of the Green Book
Pod, which discussed economic policy and net zero.

Commentary by Duncan Brack

As one of the 30 signatories of November’s letter to The Guardian, which called for a bolder profile
for the party, personally I think we should be able to find a way to stress the importance of
improving EU relations when voters or journalists ask us for our solutions to the problems people
care about (and one which doesn’t involve trying to explain the party’s four-stage roadmap!), but we
didn’t have time to explore that in detail in this episode. We’ll be returning to the question of the
party’s overall message to the electorate – the answer to the question ‘what do we stand for?’ – in a
future episode.