Nemesis followed hubris so quickly for Jo Swinson, they were able to pass the relay baton in the exchange zone. No sooner had she mooted the possibility of her being the next Prime Minister than she found herself dumped out of Parliament. It is a short step from the sublime to the ridiculous.
The Lib Dems also went backwards in the seat count. They held 21 before the election, having won 12 in 2017 and benefited from a clump of defections. After the general election, they held just 11.
In truth, the Lib Dems are still on the long road to recovery from their disaster in 2015, when they were reduced to just eight seats. Their problem ever since has been the same one: irrelevance.
It gets worse. While they have been bumping along the bottom, there has been a lot of churn of seats. They have held just two seats continuously from 2015: Orkney & Shetland and Westmorland & Lonsdale. Of the remaining six seats the Lib Dems held that year, they are now third in two and more than 20% behind the winners in another two. They have no bedrock.
They have comprehensively lost the battle for urban progressives to Labour. In 2010, they won 19 seats where Labour were in contention at the 2015 election. Of those 19, the Lib Dems now hold just two: Edinburgh West and Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross (both from the SNP). Of the other 17, Labour hold 12, the SNP hold three and the Conservatives hold two. Not a single Lib Dem seat features in Labour’s first 250 targets – Labour have maxed out against them.
The Lib Dems are never going to have more propitious circumstances to fight Labour than 2019. Labour had a leader who was widely disliked and widely seen as extreme. Labour seemed diffident on the main question of the age, Brexit, while the Lib Dems were almost synonymous with one side of the debate. Yet they flunked it. The Lib Dems need to think hard about how they are going to cooperate with Labour rather than fight it if they want to make any progress anywhere.
The good news is that there is now more scope for progress elsewhere. Their higher vote share coupled with a message geared towards luring cautious Remainers has enabled them to secure a position as the main opposition to the Conservatives throughout much of central southern England. This is reflected in their target list. All bar six of their top 50 targets are Conservative-held. Just as importantly, they are second in all bar three on this list (Ceredigion, Hampstead & Kilburn and North East Somerset). Only they can win in the other 47, I’m sure their electors will be told.
Not that the Lib Dems should be aiming to win 50 seats at the next election in the absence of the most extraordinary political upheavals. The Lib Dems would need a uniform national swing of 14.5% to take that many seats. Even allowing for the fact that the Lib Dems won’t be fighting a national campaign, that’s way too rich for my blood. At three successive elections we have seen the Lib Dems fail to target effectively and as a result win fewer seats than they might have done. They need to learn at the fourth attempt.
A 5% uniform swing would yield them just 15 seats. In truth, if the Lib Dems achieved that increase in seat numbers in 2024, they should be exultant.
The Lib Dems have another big decision to make. They made advances in a slew of seats in and around London by taking an avowedly Remain stance over Brexit. They did so at the cost of regaining seats, particularly in the south west, that had previously returned Lib Dem MPs. There are 12 seats in their top 50 targets in the south west, many of them formerly Lib Dem held. On the other hand, there are a further eight seats in their top 50 targets in London, a further 17 in the south east area and a further five in the east of England. The Lib Dems are effectively going to need to pick sides between targeting former strongholds and building on their new brand.
This is not as easy as just looking at the numbers of seats on either side of this dilemma. The Lib Dems will have a good idea of who their lapsed voters are in seats they previously held and have fought for years. Many of their new targets will be much less familiar territory for them. It may well be easier for them to generate bigger swings in well-trodden terrain – in the short term at least.
Set against that, the Lib Dems need to think about why they had the disaster in 2015 in the first place. Essentially their problem was that while they had been a third party in opposition they had been able to be all things to all men. That was impossible in government, when they were branded by their own actions. Their recent modest advances have been achieved by taking a polarising position, one that voters understand in advance, even if they don’t like it.
Durable success is best built by standing for something meaningful. The Lib Dems seem to have stumbled into their trench. They should not desert it now.