The December 2019 Liberal Democrat election campaign which called for the abandoning of Brexit was akin to a “high-speed car crash,” according to a new internal party report.
The 61-page damage assessment, led by Lib Dem peer Dorothy Thornhill, argues that the fiercely anti-Brexit party leader, Jo Swinson, and a band of ideologically committed close aides, “alienated large chunks of the population” because of their pledge to cancel Brexit.
The report damningly concludes that beyond the policy of revoking Brexit - despite 52% of the electorate democratically voting for it in a 2016 referendum - other party policies struggled to translate to the masses.
“Beyond stopping Brexit,” the authors say, “there was no overarching offer of the country we wanted to create that would appeal to the electorate at large.”
The December 2019 election then ended in “disaster” for the party, returning to the House of Commons with just 11 seats despite having 20 MPs beforehand following high-profile defections from the Labour and Conservative parties. Miss Swinson, despite advertising herself as a Prime Minister in waiting, lost her East Dunbartonshire seat to the Scottish National Party.
The report, which was based in part on almost 21,000 survey responses from Lib Dem party members and officials, also said that Swinson’s continued promise to ditch Brexit if the party secured a parliamentary majority meant that it “effectively ignored” what made up the largest demographic among UK voters: those who were neither hardcore Brexiteers or Remainers, and in fact even alienated people among Remain constituency who did not agree with canceling a democratic vote.
Moreover, the report suggests, the party was almost blinded by its own enthusiasm for then-new leader Jo Swinson - elected in July 2019 - and her chances of becoming Prime Minister, which as a result, meant that it took a “high stakes gamble” by agreeing to a general election at the time of Boris Johnson’s choosing.
The authors say that it was “wishful thinking” for the party to believe that their own high level of confidence in Miss Swinson would be shared by the electorate. The idea “appeared unrealistic to the wider public, especially given that we were already falling in the polls.”
The memo also points to “structural problems” as accounting for their disastrous election result. Following her election as Lib Dem leader, Miss Swinson created “an ‘inner circle’ of advisers at arm’s length from the resources of the party machine, and put decision making in the hands of an unaccountable group around the leader.”
The report adds that the party also failed to appeal widely to black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) voters who could have made a big difference in many London voting constituencies.
“We adopted a bunker mentality, sticking rigidly to a single course of action despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Nobody intended it to be how it was, but the outcome was catastrophic. We were poor performers in an election which we helped to call, and in which poor planning, leadership and decision making compounded to give us such a poor result.”
The party’s current leader, Ed Davey, described the findings as “a raw & powerful document” in a series of Tweets, despite being an advocate for many of Swinson's policies himself - including stopping Brexit.