- The Liberal Democrats are reeling after a disastrous general election performance.
- The party won fewer seats than it did at the last election in 2017.
- Jo Swinson has resigned as leader after losing her seat in a shock result in Scotland.
- The party went into the election confident of winning numerous of seats. Swinson said she could become prime minister.
- But major strategic errors cost the party potential support.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The Liberal Democrats are in a state of shock after waking up the morning after the United Kingdom’s general election without a leader and in a worse position than they were heading into the poll.
The anti-Brexit party went into the election with such high hopes. Jo Swinson, who up until a few hours ago was its leader, said she was confident of making numerous gains, and that she could end up becoming prime minister.
However, despite winning four perent more of the national vote than they did in 2017, the Liberal Democrats went backwards. They won with eleven House of Commons seats, one fewer than they won at the last general election.
None of the candidates who this year defected to the Liberal Democrats from other parties succeeded in getting re-elected. Tom Brake, the party’s popular Brexit spokesperson, lost his seat to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
In probably the night’s biggest upset, Swinson lost own seat to the Scottish National Party, and swiftly quit as leader.
Just a few months ago, the Liberal Democrats were polling at around 20% in the polls after performing strongly in European and local elections. The party had acquired its biggest ever spending war chest coming into the election thanks to increased financial backing. Insiders thought they were on the cusp of a major electoral breakthrough.
So what went so badly wrong?
Their promise to cancel Brexit was too extreme even for some Remainers
In case you might have missed it, the Liberal Democrats’ biggest policy heading into this election was stopping Brexit.
However, the Liberal Democrats decided to go further than other pro-Remain parties like the Greens and Scottish National Party, promising to scrap Britain’s exit altogether if elected to government by revoking Article 50.
The party took this decision at its autumn conference. Swinson and co believed it would be proof of the party’s unequivocal status as the UK’s leading Remain party and take votes away from both the Conservatives and Labour.
But a number of party figures and many members were uneasy about it. They were concerned that cancelling Brexit without consulting the public would be seen as undemocratic and risked alienating thousands of potential voters.
Sir Norman Lamb, a Lib Dem MP at the time, warned the party that it was “playing with fire” with its revoke policy.
The warnings turned out to be pretty accurate. On doorsteps during the general election campaign, even voters who described themselves as strong Remainers said they felt uneasy about the revoke policy, and that it was a step too far.
One party source said the policy was unnecessary because the Liberal Democrats were already clearly pro-Remain.
They told Business Insider: “Revoking Article 50 was odd — I can see why they did it, but it’s not as if anyone thought Liberal Democrats were anything but remain anyway.”
Another party figure said: “Revoke was terrible and also just totally misread the public mood.”
Swinson’s presidential campaign missed the mark
Heading into the election, party insiders believed that one of their biggest strengths was Swinson as an individual.
They were keen to get her in as many television debates with Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn as possible, predicting that compared with the pair, she would come across as an impressive performer and a breath of fresh air.
This is why the party decided to run a campaign that was effectively presidential in how much it centered around Swinson. A common sight of this election campaign was the party’s battle bus traveling up and down the country with a huge potrait of Swinson plastered on its side.
However, as the campaign went on, Swinson’s personal ratings gradually dwindled. Some would a say a key moment was a Question Time special in Sheffield where she endured tough questions from a hostile studio audience.
There was also a feeling among some party figures that the focus on Swinson came at the expense of exciting policies.
“There was just nothing to it [the campaign] other than early arrogant assertions Jo would be prime minister and ‘woo remain’,” one told Business Insider.
Others argued that it was always going to be difficult to run a presidential-style campaign around a candidate who going until the election was barely known to the general public.
Ultimately, Swinson did not succeed in endearing herself to voters in the way that those around her had hoped and predicted.
Tactical voting didn’t deliver results
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A big question heading into Thursday’s general election was how much of an impact tactical voting would have.
The Lib Dems were heavily involved in efforts by anti-Brexit parties and campaigners to block a Conservative victory.
The party agreed to stand aside for the Greens and Plaid Cymru in a handful of seats and in many other constituencies tactical voting websites urged pro-Remain voters to support Liberal Democrat candidates.
However, while tactical voting undoubtedly was a more prominent feature of this general election than any other before, it failed to deliver results in the key seats that the Liberal Democrats were hoping to win.
In the Cities of London & Westminster, for example, Chuka Umunna failed to get the cross-party support he needed to take it from the Conservatives. It didn’t help Luciana Berger in Finchley & Golders Green, either.
The Lib Dems say that tactical voting would have been much more effective, and would have delivered more Lib Dem members of Parliament, had Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour put party politics to one side and agreed to strike a pact.
Anti-Brexit campaigners who were pushing tactical voting also say that Labour’s refusal to countenance an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats imposed clear limits on what the initiative could achieve.
Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats’ mission to lead a cross-party, anti-Brexit movement did not produce the results the party wanted.
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