The situation in Jersey is rapidly spiralling out of control and dominating the headlines. But once again, the Lib Dems have surpassed themselves in responding terribly to a crisis that offered them a chance to win over voters.
After a predictable post-Brexit mix-up on fishing rights in the Channel, France's maritime minister Annick Girardin hit back. Girardin threatened to pull the plug on Jersey’s energy supply – a worrying threat given the island gets 95 per cent of its power from the continent. This was a ridiculous, over-the-top response to what has been happening as the new fishing regime takes effect. Brexit was a situation that was always going to require a measure of diplomacy on all sides. France's government has acted childishly – and Britain is right to condemn Girardin.
Unfortunately, the British government has also gone too far in its response – making matters worse by sending in the navy. It hardly goes without saying that this won't help calm things down.
And now, the Lib Dems have entered into the debate. Layla Moran, the MP who handles the foreign affairs brief for the party, gave a statement on the Jersey situation this morning:
'This gunboat diplomacy is an admission of failure by this Government. The real question is how did they let it even get to this stage. France is a partner and a friend. When our governments disagree we should resolve our differences with grown up conversation and negotiation, not with cannons in the Channel. Sending in the Navy risks escalating the situation rather than what is needed which is calm and cool heads. I urge the Government to rethink their strategy.'
Notice the absence of a key word in that press release: Brexit. There is no mention at all of why this row is happening in the first place. This is particularly strange given there is a cogent anti-Brexit argument to be made about what is unfolding in the Channel – namely that Britain leaving the EU has caused predictable yet undesirable tensions between countries that have been allies for centuries. Why are the Lib Dems failing to make that point?
Moran is right that the British government sending in gunboats is a mistake. But she also fails to condemn France for threatening to cut off Jersey’s energy supply. Without bringing in Brexit for context, it looks like the Lib Dems are simply siding with the French over the British in an international incident. Both countries have acted badly, yet from the response of Ed Davey's party you wouldn't realise that the French were the ones who unnecessarily upped the ante.
Why should we worry what Layla Moran thinks about the Channel crisis? Because it gets to the heart of what is so confusing about the Lib Dem strategy. The Lib Dems appear to want to leave Brexit behind, at least for the next few years, in order to try and win back voters who don’t like either Labour or the Tories and yet were pro-Brexit. That strategy is understandable, even if many voters might disagree. At the very least, it offers a clear message.
Yet this strategy will only work if the Lib Dems adjust to the voters they are trying to attract. If they want to be a left-wing, ‘progressive’ party, ditching the anti-Brexit stuff is a terrible idea. But if they want to win back pro-Brexit types in the West Country, siding with France over their own country is also a really unwise move.
It feels like Moran’s response falls between all of these cracks perfectly. The Lib Dems could have called out the government for sending in the navy by coming at it from an anti-Brexit angle. This would have allowed the Lib Dems to have avoided siding with the French, pointing out that Brexit was bound to cause these sorts of incidents. This is particularly so given the rushed way in which the trade deal was finalised in December. In other words, this is the fault of Brexit, not either nation state.
Or if they wanted to avoid talking about Brexit – which they clearly do – they could have simply denounced France's threat to cut off Jersey’s energy supply as well as us sending in the navy and call for calm on all sides.
Instead, the Lib Dems (as ever) chose the worst of both options. This matters because unless the Lib Dems figure out basic stuff like this, they are going to keep alienating potential voters. A party that is vaguely progressive in general but liberal on lockdown – and that is best known for saying 'Bollocks to Brexit' but seeks to sideline pro-EU sentiment – is in real danger of appealing to absolutely no one.
I wish the Lib Dems luck today in the local elections and even think they could do all right. Yet however they fare, the party needs to figure out who it is they are trying to appeal to and what their purpose as a party is. If they fail to do this, any sort of rebuilding project will be doomed. Their response to the Jersey situation is the perfect example of this problem.