Are the Lib Dems finished? It's not the first time that question has been asked. In fact, it's a fairly regular refrain. With the days when the Liberal Democrats reliably won around 40 to 60 seats a distant memory, the party has struggled since the coalition years to find relevance. Ahead of the 2019 snap election, the party appeared to be in a good position. After big gains in the European elections, the then leader Jo Swinson had a chance to capitalise on two polarising leaders in Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn and hoover up votes from the centre. Instead the party won fewer seats than in 2019 and Swinson lost her own seat.
It's in part for these reasons that the leadership contest now underway to find Swinson's successor has failed to set the heather alight. However, as I say in this week's Spectator, that doesn't mean it's unimportant. In December’s general election the party came second in 91 seats, and appears to be within striking distance in a large number of these. Dull as the party’s leadership contest may seem, it will play a role, and a potentially crucial one, in determining whether or not the Tories win a fifth term at the next election.
In theory, Keir Starmer is a nightmare for the Liberal Democrats. He comes across as a competent moderate and someone liberals will be attracted to. He makes it harder for the Lib Dems to woo disillusioned Labour voters tired of the party’s lurch to the left. But the Lib Dem paradox is that, although Labour is their competition, historically they tend to fare better when the party’s leader is a moderate. The Liberal Democrats did best under Tony Blair, worse under Ed Miliband and worst of all under Jeremy Corbyn. ‘Liberal Democrat voters need to feel safe about voting Liberal Democrat — they need to know they are not risking an unacceptable Labour prime minister,’ says a pollster with links to Labour.
To win a Labour majority, Starmer needs to gain 123 seats in the next election. Given that the SNP are surging in popularity north of the border, to get to a working majority that doesn’t involve a deal with the Scottish nationalists, Labour would need to win in many Tory strongholds. As the Conservative party focuses more and more on voters in the ‘red wall’, their opponents spy neglected voters up for grabs in the commuter belt. The hope in Liberal Democrat circles is that Starmer will need their help to topple Conservative seats in order to put an end to the Tory majority. After all, it is the Liberal Democrats who tend to be in second place in these seats and have a campaigning presence there.
The new leader will be integral to setting the direction for targeting these seats – and the type of relationship the party can form with Starmer's Labour. Moran and Davey have different approaches to finding relevance again. They are going after different types of potential liberals. Moran is the outside bet. She has declared that, if picked, she would make the party ‘more radical’ than Labour and has promised to be ‘unapologetic’ about it. Her supporters argue that the fact that she wasn’t an MP in the five years of coalition government means her untainted brand can win over young voters – with a particular focus on soft Labour voters. Her allies say her approach will be similar to Charles Kennedy’s, taking the fight to Labour. However, Moran allies also argue she is in the best position to try to form non aggression pacts with Labour as she does not carry the coalition baggage that Davey does.
Davey, a veteran of the coalition cabinet, is the bookies’ favourite and the more reliable, if boring, option. He is targeting the ‘commuter liberal’. As one election strategist says: ‘People laugh at the fact Ed Davey looks like he signs off accounts for a small business, but that is who the liberal vote is.’ Davey would not plan to make a formal pact with Starmer’s Labour, but he would try to copy the understanding that Paddy Ashdown — whom he worked for — and Blair had in opposition, which saw the pair swapping PMQs attack lines.
With Labour planning to stand candidates in every seat in Britain, there are ways for the party to soft pedal in Tory/Lib Dem marginals. There is no appetite in the Leader's Office for a formal pact. Despite this, the prospect of some form of power-sharing will come up if only as a Tory attack line – warnings of a 'coalition of chaos' have haunted previous Labour leaders. However, there's an argument that the prospect of Starmer and Davey teaming up would paint an image closer to boredom than mayhem. As Starmer adopts the Blair approach of concentrating on the government and the government alone as Labour’s opposition, he could conclude that an unspoken alliance with the Liberal Democrats offers him his best chance of denying the Tories a fifth term in office.