LONDON: Voters could give Europhile politicians a boost in Britain’s upcoming election but the effect will be limited and the prospect of a grand alliance to soften Brexit is improbable, analysts said.
Defeated by last year’s referendum to quit the European Union, which was won by 52 per cent to 48 per cent, EU supporters outside of Scotland in fact have few options except for the Liberal Democrats.
“Fortuitously for them, they find themselves in a position of being the only party that is making the anti-Brexit case,” said Rob Ford, political science professor at the University of Manchester.
“In a lot of seats, there are a lot of ‘Remain’ voters to appeal to,” Ford said, particularly as the main opposition Labour party’s official position on leaving the European Union is “deeply unclear”.
Labour has said it will back the government on Brexit as long as certain conditions are respected, such as retaining strong economic ties with the EU and defending workers’ and environmental rights.
In Scotland, the Scottish National Party is the dominant force and is advocating an independence referendum to hold on to strong ties with Europe.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that if the “parliamentary arithmetic” supported it she would form a “progressive alliance” to keep Prime Minister Theresa May from returning to power.
But analysts have said the chances are weak — chiefly because the Liberal Democrats would probably not want to ally with a struggling Labour Party, which is also deeply divided over its current leader.
“Why would you shackle yourself to a concrete block and jump in the water?” Ford said.
Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, who has called for Britain to reverse its decision to leave the EU, has in the past called for such a pro-EU alliance.
But on Tuesday he issued a milder statement urging voters to elect MPs who have an “open mind” on Brexit.
“This should cross party lines,” he said in a statement hours after Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans for a June 8 vote.
“The damage to the country will be huge if we end up with an unrestrained ‘Brexit At Any Cost’ majority.”
‘Only way is up’
The Liberal Democrats were in a coalition government with the Conservatives between 2010 and 2015 but were crushed in an election that year, losing all but eight of their seats in the House of Commons.
They campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU last year and have fought for the country to remain in the European single market since the Brexit victory.
Wyn Grant, politics professor at the University of Warwick, said the Liberal Democrats could regain 20 seats in the election “if things go well for them”.
Rachel Sylvester, a columnist for The Times newspaper, said the Liberal Democrat threat was being taken more seriously than Labour by the government.
“The only way is up” for the party, she wrote.
The Liberal Democrats won a ninth seat in parliament in a by-election in Richmond in December.
The victory “shows the power of a clear pro-European message in seats that voted Remain”, Sylvester said.
Vince Cable, a former business minister in the coalition government who was voted out in the 2015 general election, has announced his intention to run in his old seat of Twickenham in west London.
The area voted strongly in favour of “Remain”.
But Ford said that votes for the Liberal Democrats could draw support away from Labour and ultimately boost May’s Conservatives.
There could be some good news for Europhiles, however.
The Conservative majority forecast by the latest opinion polls might actually soften Brexit by making May less bound to hard liners in her party during delicate negotiations in Brussels, Ford said.
“With a bigger majority she can afford more defections,” Ford said, adding: “It would give May more freedom to compromise.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2017