Thankfully, the Lib Dem insurbrexion worked — the motion to suspend standing orders was won, by 377 votes to 96, so now there will be an actual debate and vote on policy tomorrow.
Now, I can’t be at conference for personal reasons, but I think it’s important that we actually vote for the new policy, and not for the leadership wrecking amendment which would return the policy to the one we have now. But several powerful people in the party, including the leader and a vice-chair of FPC, have been out in force today saying the opposite.
What they’ve been saying is that we don’t need to change the policy, because “under our existing policy we are fully committed to exiting from Brexit”. This is, frankly, a lie. It may well be what they hope to be the result of the existing policy, but it’s not what the existing policy actually commits us to.
Remember that our policies say *what we would do in government*, and imagine we somehow managed to form a government before the end of the negotiations after a snap election. Now what would our existing policy commit us to do?
It would commit us, first, to continue to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU and try to get a deal with the other EU members — even though we think it’s a bad idea to leave the EU and getting a good deal is impossible.
Then it would commit us to holding a referendum in which we would campaign against the deal we just negotiated, saying we hadn’t done a good enough job of negotiation.
And then, assuming that referendum resulted in people still voting to leave the EU anyway — and I see no reason to assume otherwise, and certainly not to be sure of it — it would commit a Lib Dem government to leaving the EU, even though we think that’s a terrible idea.
That’s not a policy. That’s an attempt at fence-sitting so torturous it ends up with the party impaled on a fence-post, writhing in self-imposed agony. It’s neither a principled argument nor a pragmatic one, it’s just an attempt not to have any position on a controversial issue.
The policy motion put forward, on the other hand, is not perfect (for example I’d have changed the wording about “a Liberal Democrat-led government” so it referred to any government in which the Lib Dems are even a junior partner), but what it commits any future Lib Dem government to is simple:
Not leaving the EU.
That’s it. Not “negotiating a deal we know to be bad and then campaigning against the deal we negotiated”, not “rerunning an ill-advised advisory plebiscite which was distorted by a massive oligarchal propaganda campaign in the hope that the billionaires will play nice this time and not try to asset-strip the country after all”. Just not leaving the EU.
And note that it doesn’t bind the party in any situation *other* than a Lib Dem-led government. It doesn’t prevent MPs from working with MPs from other parties while in opposition to get a referendum on the final deal. It doesn’t prevent MPs from amending government bills to soften the worst of what’s happening.
It doesn’t, in short, prevent the party from compromising with other parties to get an imperfect result that’s still better than the current one. It just doesn’t *pre-compromise* everything. It’s sometimes necessary to meet people half-way, but when you’re doing that you don’t *start* from half-way.
We can either claim to be opposed to Brexit, or we can say “we don’t really have an opinion either way, you decide”. Yes, having an opinion will alienate some voters, but since most voters are already alienated from us, perhaps we could try winning over those with strong opinions rather than the current strategy of being no things to no people?
Anyway, that’s what I think, and that’s what I’d say to conference if I had a chance. And I hope someone more diplomatic than I *will* say that tomorrow.