With the Liberal Democrats’ Party Conference now over and the other party conferences approaching, it’s time to provide a summary of what happened in the course of the past few days that might suggest a change of pace in the current political turmoil in the UK. The blogpost below is a wrap-up of the conference, seen from the eyes of a first-time attendee and strong pro-European.
On 14th – 15th September, I attended, on behalf of The Whitehouse Consultancy, the first couple of days of the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dem) Autumn Party Conference in Bournemouth (UK). And what an energising experience it was! The glorious sunny days and the stunning scenery over sandy beaches and rocky cliffs provided the perfect framework for the four-day event, packed with a pro-European and liberal gathering of like-minded people.
The mother of all fights
The conference theatre was crowded at the main Party rally on the evening of 14th September. A wave of gold and cheering people welcomed the former Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, who delivered a rousing speech highlighting the core of the Lib Dem pro-European stance. He said “the Lib Dems were the party who fought to the last for our place at the heart of Europe” and added that “to leave Europe would be to abandon Britain’s poorest, to abandon Britain’s young, to abandon Britain’s relevance, to abandon Britain’s friend [..] to abandon the world’s most successful peace process and we could not let that slip away over night without the mother of all fights”. This definitely caused a few shivers down the spine.
Empire? What Empire?
A powerful tribute to the squad of 16 newly elected Members of Parliament (MEPs) followed. Led by the Group leader Catharine Bearder MEP, the MEPs made a strong case for the importance of the European Union and the fact that “to make a difference in the European Union, we need to stop Brexit”. They then introduced the not-so-secret-guest, Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian Prime Minister, and main negotiator in the Brexit talks for the European Parliament. In his stirring speech, he launched into an unprecedented rant about the state of the world, which he claimed was dominated by ’empires’. And, that the UK could only be protected from these scary ‘empires’, if it banded together with the European Union. Somewhat bizarre, considering that supporters of Brexit are often accused by their political opponents of having an unhealthy obsession with the past, yet it was a powerful message, especially in view of his role as an MEP, representing the European institutions. Sigh of relief… the EU is still there and patiently waiting for this country to take a decision.
The big revelation of the evening
But the surprises were not over. After a rather informal, and cheerful speech by party Leade,r Jo Swinson, who warmly thanked all the activists, newly elected MEPs, and MPs who recently joined the Lib Dem benches, Jo Swinson unveiled the newest addition to the Lib Dem, former Conservative MP Sam Gyimah. Gyimah, who was welcomed by the audience with a standing ovation, explained that “The two old parties have moved to the edges of the political spectrum – each with their own brand of intolerance and division – leaving millions politically homeless. It doesn’t have to be like this. Jo [Swinson] is leading a real movement to unite the centre, bringing together liberal-minded people to offer a real alternative”. He was certainly more welcomed than Philip Lee MP..
Humour is the winning formula
“We are a party of open arms, not closed minds.” This was the sentence that summarised the feeling that pervaded the conference and it was pronounced by Sir Vince Cable, former leader of the LibDems who left his position to Jo Swinson in July 2019. In his speech on Sunday, 15th September, Vince Cable openly opposed Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party defining it as an “intolerant, narrow unrepresentative cult”. On Boris Johnson, Cable recalled the words of Roman historian Tacitus and said, “Everyone agreed that he was capable of ruling until he actually did”. One remarkable feature of Vince Cable’s speech was his intense use of irony and humour which in this case, combined with powerful pro-European soundbites, united the audience. I never laughed so much at a political gathering…
And then the big bomb was dropped. On Sunday, 15th September, after a robust debate, the Lib Dem Conference passed a powerful motion that laid out a decisive position that might change the fate of Britain on Brexit. With an overwhelming majority, the Liberal Democrats pledged to cancel Brexit if they come to power with a majority government at the next general election. After the vote, leader Jo Swinson, said: “We will do all we can to fight for our place in Europe, and to stop Brexit altogether.”
The fight is on
Finally, the big debut came. On Monday, 16th September, Jo Swinson delivered her first speech as party leader. Closing the Liberal Democrat conference, Jo Swinson announced that the next election would be a fight for the “heart and soul of Britain” and openly confronted both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, claiming that the country now needed the Lib Dems to give voters a better choice. The conference rose to its feet happily to applaud her closing words: “We can change our politics, stop Brexit and win a brighter future.”
And now..back to reality
On this note, a few final considerations are in order. From a newbie and strong pro-European perspective, this conference was indeed very emotional and enriching. A sense of a common fight for the greater good was felt throughout the weekend. Yet, the return to harsh reality has kicked in, just a few days after the conference. How realistic is the chance that a Lib Dem majority will be formed? How real is the hope that Brexit could be stopped and that the UK could remain in the European Union? Despite the hubris the latest polls put the Liberal Democrats’ support at 23%, overtaking the Labour for the first time since July, now in third place. But is it going to last? Is it going to get better? It remains to be seen whether these hopes can be turned into tangible reality in the coming months.
The multilingual Whitehouse team are experts in politics and policy development across the European Union, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients. More information about our European experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our European Director, Viviana Spaghetti, at firstname.lastname@example.org.