Key Lib Dems warned party not to back December election

Former party leaders Vince Cable and Tim Farron among those who raised fears about breaking opposition ranks

Senior Lib Dems warned their party against backing the December election that Boris Johnson had been demanding, it has emerged.

Vince Cable, Tim Farron and Phillip Lee are all said to have raised serious concerns about the party’s surprise move to offer the prime minister the chance of an election. Opposition parties had previously been united in opposing the move.

It is understood they told party officials that keeping Johnson locked in a minority government, inflicting parliamentary defeats and fostering Tory infighting would have given them a much better chance to plan and fight an election in the spring.

The Observer broke the news that the Lib Dems, along with the SNP, were planning to offer Johnson a December election. Once they made the offer, Labour opted to back the 12 December election a few days later. Lib Dem insiders said there was resistance to the December election plan, warning that supporters of the idea had become obsessed with internal polling in the wake of May’s European elections suggesting the party would be competitive in well over 100 seats. “Hubris was the problem throughout,” said one.

The election ended in disaster for the party, with leader Jo Swinson losing her seat and the Lib Dems finishing with one fewer MPs than in 2017 – an outcome unthinkable at the outset of the campaign just six weeks ago. Swinson has blamed the decision by the Brexit party to pull out of many seats for the Lib Dems’ struggles, while others believe her exclusion from televised leaders’ debates was a key development. Defeated Lib Dems also pointed to the party’s unpopular pledge to revoke Brexit without a referendum.

Swinson and the former Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Phillip Lee on a visit to Shinfield Tennis Club on December 7.
Swinson and the former Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Phillip Lee on a visit to Shinfield Tennis Club on December 7. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

Lee, who lost in Wokingham despite a large swing to the Lib Dems, confirmed he had opposed an election. “Having the election in the first place was a bad decision,” he said. “I did my best to try to stop that because we hadn’t exhausted the effort to get the last parliament to back a people’s vote. We bet the house on Nigel Farage not stepping aside. On the doorstep, our unnecessary revoke policy put us on the back foot and our national campaign didn’t cut through to people. We were also fighting fear of Corbyn. In defence of our party, we had great policies, particularly around childcare, climate change and energy efficiency, and mental health services.

“But as soon as the BBC decided not to be impartial and to frame the choice as Corbyn versus Johnson, the game was over. For the future, the liberal progressive centre has to present a credible alternative to rightwing populism and nationalism.”

However, party sources said the “prevailing view” was that the Lib Dems had to back an election because there were signs Johnson had the votes to force through his Brexit deal. There were also concerns that the EU would not allow another Brexit extension.

The Lib Dems are now in search of a new leader, with MP Ed Davey and peer Sal Brinton taking temporary charge. The Oxford West and Abingdon MP Layla Moran is seen as the favourite to replace Swinson.

Michael Savage

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Lib Dems offer Johnson route to December election
Amendment to Fixed-Term Parliaments Act could prevent Brexit deal coming back to Commons

Michael Savage and Toby Helm

26, Oct, 2019 @10:51 PM

Article image
‘I could be the next PM’: Vince Cable plots path back from wilderness
The Lib Dem leader intends to restore winning ways

Andrew Rawnsley and Toby Helm

16, Sep, 2017 @11:05 PM

Article image
Cable rejects Lib Dem coalition with ‘appalling’ main parties
On the eve of his party conference, the Lib Dem leader says he would work with Labour’s moderate backbenchers

Toby Helm and Andrew Rawnsley

16, Sep, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
My tactics 'saved the Lib Dems', Farron tells party conference
Former leader will say growth in membership and local election vote share shows success, as Vince Cable repeats prediction it is possible he could be PM

Jessica Elgot

17, Sep, 2017 @9:00 PM

Article image
Progressive alliance would not stop Tory majority, study suggests
Campaigners insist cooperation between Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens is key to limiting landslide for Theresa May

Michael Savage

13, May, 2017 @7:11 PM

Article image
Vince Cable calls Lib Dems' pledge to revoke article 50 'a distraction'
Former leader says party should support second Brexit referendum instead

Guardian staff and agency

30, Nov, 2019 @3:10 PM

Article image
Lib Dems seek guarantee for EU nationals living in UK
Vague assurances from prime minister and home secretary not enough for the 2m Europeans already here, say Lib Dems

Daniel Boffey Policy Editor

02, Jul, 2016 @9:00 PM

Article image
Tim Farron’s pledge to voters: Lib Dems won’t make coalition deals
‘We want to be main opposition’ says party leader as Conservatives stretch poll lead to 19 points

Toby Helm and Ben Quinn

22, Apr, 2017 @8:30 PM

Article image
Almost half of voters say they would vote for new party in election
Neither Tories nor Labour offer a strong leader according to voters, Observer poll finds

Michael Savage Observer policy editor

15, Sep, 2018 @4:28 PM

Article image
Lib Dems bid to be voice of Remain voters after surprise surge in Witney byelection
Leader Tim Farron proclaims party is ‘back’ and will set sights on Zac Goldsmith’s seat if he quits over Heathrow expansion

Patrick Maguire and Toby Helm

23, Oct, 2016 @6:00 AM