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From the moment last month when Theresa May called the general election, few were in any doubt that the Conservatives would win, Labour would struggle and the Liberal Democrats would surge. With three weeks to go, the Conservatives are still on course for victory with support above 45 per cent but Labour is performing a little better than expected, with a number of polls this week putting the party above 30 per cent.
The big surprise has been in the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats, who were expected to recapture seats they lost in 2015 and conquer new ones in Remain-voting areas with their clear opposition to Brexit. Instead, they remain stuck in single digits in the polls and face the real possibility of returning to Westminster with fewer than their current tally of nine seats.
In this month’s local elections in England and Wales, when the party was expected to make gains, it instead lost 28 seats. In the southwest of England, long a Liberal Democrat stronghold, the party has failed to win back the support it lost following its years in coalition with David Cameron. Elsewhere, the resurgent Conservatives pose a threat to Liberal Democrat seats, including that of party leader Tim Farron.
Farron has had a difficult campaign, starting with a drawn-out controversy over whether he believes gay sex is sinful. An evangelical Christian, he has suggested in the past that he may believe that it is. Farron’s voting record on gay rights has been mostly supportive, although it has involved some convenient abstentions.
For more than a week, he tried to avoid answering the question, before finally stating that he does not, in fact, think gay sex is a sin. This week, he insisted that he was pro-choice, despite telling a Salvation Army newspaper a decade ago that abortion “is wrong at any time”.
Farron’s views on the morality of gay sex and abortion are entirely orthodox for a Christian and have not prevented him from supporting liberal policies on both issues. But his awkward response reinforced doubts about his leadership and highlighted how culturally out of tune he is with the metropolitan voters the Liberal Democrats hope to woo with their stance on Brexit.
Alone among the main parties, the Liberal Democrats are promising a second referendum on Brexit, including the option of Britain remaining in the EU. With the Conservatives embracing a hard Brexit and Labour trooping meekly behind them to authorise May to trigger article 50, Farron’s party looked set to be the party of choice for die-hard Remainers.
The first problem with this strategy became apparent in the local elections, when voters in rural Liberal Democrat strongholds which voted for Brexit failed to return to the party. A bigger problem emerged this week, with a YouGov poll showing that opposition to Brexit may be weaker than previously believed.
Few voters on either side in last year’s referendum regret their vote or would vote differently if the referendum was held today. But YouGov found that, while almost all Leave voters are determined to see Brexit through, fewer than half of those who voted Remain have an appetite to resist it.
The rest, dubbed “Re-Leavers”, have concluded that, since the people have voted to leave the EU, it is time to get on with it. Many such voters are drawn to May’s no-nonsense approach to Brexit, and her promise to achieve the best deal for Britain. According to YouGov, the anti-Brexit camp accounts for only 22 per cent of voters, not the 48 per cent who voted to remain in the EU.
Perhaps the most unexpected problem for the Liberal Democrats is the fact that the election has turned out not to be about Brexit at all, but about the prime minister herself. By making May’s “strong and stable” leadership the central message of their campaign, the Conservatives have made the election a referendum on who should lead Britain.
Labour’s recovery in recent days may not be a tribute to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership so much as a sign that voters feel sure enough of his defeat to vote Labour and deny May a landslide next month. Either way, the lower the Liberal Democrats sink in the polls, the less relevant they seem to Britain’s future and the more unlikely their promised surge becomes.