I woke to the alarm at 04.50 on the Saturday of Conference and an hour later was greeted by David Sapiro, our Vice-chair of Lib Dems Belgium, with a thermos of coffee at his home in central Brussels. By 08.15 we were approaching the Channel Tunnel at Calais en route for the English Riviera town of Bournemouth! We wondered aloud whether this would be our last pre-Brexit encounter with customs...
I woke to the alarm at 04.50 on the Saturday of Conference and an hour later was greeted by David Sapiro, our Vice-chair of Lib Dems Belgium, with a thermos of coffee at his home in central Brussels. By 08.15 we were approaching the Channel Tunnel at Calais en route for the English Riviera town of Bournemouth! We wondered aloud whether this would be our last pre-Brexit encounter with customs, having both recalled the days before the establishment of The Single Market when border posts were taken down and crossing borders became a geographical curiosity as opposed to an administrative burden.
By 13.00 we pulled into the hotel car park across the road from the Conference Centre, just in time for a packed post lunch fringe meeting hosted by Prospect Magazine to listen to Vince Cable outline his view of the Brexit scenarios most likely to play out imminently in The House of Commons. My mood sank as he warned us all to be “emotionally prepared” for the likely passing of “A Deal” following the October 17/18th EU Summit. The only consolation Vince could offer was that maybe such a deal would only pass if a Confirmatory Referendum amendment was attached. But the deeper point was that, in Vince’s estimation, there was a good chance that Brexit would be delivered by October 31st and we would be out. Like many of us, he sensed that a majority in The Commons, including a couple of dozen Labour MP’s, were keen to get this done with and “move on”, however misguided and against all our fervent wishes.
Leaving the meeting room we made our way to the Exhibition Hall and deposited a few hundred flyers and handouts at the Lib Dems Europe Stand. We then went our own ways and being a first timer at any political conference I meandered around the various stands taking in the huge array of interest groups represented. My eye was caught by the closely positioned “Lib Dems for Israel” and “Lib Dems for Palestine” stands. I wondered to myself if this reflected on how broad church the Party was or whether it was more a reflection of how strongly people feel about their own sub-areas of politics, however niche they may be.
The main event billed for Saturday evening was “The Rally” at 18.00. There was a palpable sense of excitement and expectation in the hours before as rumours started to circulate about another Westminster MP announcing their defection to our Party. Who could it be and from which party were they escaping? I was introduced to Mark Johnston who many in Brussels with know from ProEuropa and the anti-prorogation petition. We chewed over the minutiae of Vince’s lunchtime prediction and dissected the various alternative scenarios that may or may not lead to Brexit. Later we ambled over to the main hall and joined Dave Chadwick, prospective candidate for North Wiltshire and Paul Fisher, Chairman of Lib Dems France. It is fair to say that the atmosphere resembled that of an expectant crowd at a sell-out Rock Concert!
The choreography was well managed. We were given a good warm up speech by ex-Leader Tim Farron and then, quite unexpectedly, a superb and bitter sweet oration by Guy Verhofstadt, head of the Liberal Grouping in the European Parliament and one time Prime Minister of David’s and my adopted country! It felt like home from home. I say bitter sweet because here we were listening to one of the most influential Brexit interlocutors making a heartfelt plea for the UK to always stay close to Europe but said with a sense of hope rather than expectation. Not for the first time I reflected on how different the 2016 Referendum result might have been had more senior European politicians been invited to express their sincere desire for the UK to Remain instead of standing silent, at Cameron’s request, and failing to get that message across.
And then Jo Swinson took to the stage. It was the first time I had seen her and she struck me as more youthful and taller than I expected but also conveying a sense of quiet confidence with the capacity to grow into the responsibility she now had, and was likely to have in the coming months. Her stage delivery is solid and clear headed, if not yet fluent and inspiring. But that will come, I am quite sure.
And so to the “rumour”. We speculated in our seats as to who the defector might be and I ventured that it could be Heidi Allen. When Sam Gyimah walked onto the stage there was a mix of delight and surprise. He delivered a measured yet serious speech, explaining how the Conservative Party that he had joined no longer existed. A refrain that we have heard many other Tory MP’s share. Nonetheless, Sam probably represents one of the righthand buttresses of the ever broadening church that the Lib Dems seems to be developing into at this exciting time. Post the Brexit Crisis - whatever that landing ground looks like – our Party is going to have to deal with a much changed composition of MP’s and members than was the case even in 2018 let alone 2015. This will be a serious test of Jo’s leadership both in terms of moulding policy to reflect these changes in composition as well as organisation as the membership grows and the party becomes much bigger and more exposed in the media. But that is a topic for another time…
We all left “The Rally” in high spirits, Dave Chadwick joined us for dinner across the road at a well-positioned restaurant overlooking the beach. As we strolled down the hill in the warm night air I couldn’t help feeling we were in one of the better known beach communities of Southern California - Redondo or Venice Beach perhaps, or even Malibu! Such was the glorious weather and proximity to the sandy beach and pier that it was easy to forget that this was mid-September in England!
Dinner was an interesting experience for me. It had been a very long time since I had met, let alone talked one on one, with either an actual or prospective MP. I found Dave to be extremely engaging and well informed on many policies, both at the macro level as well as the local constituency level. I could also see that he was a strong organiser and leader with loads of ambition and drive. I wish him well and can see him going far in the Party. If this represents the next generation of Lib Dem MP’s then it augurs well for our representation at Westminster.
By far the most interesting and important policy debate on Sunday morning was the Brexit Motion. Should the Party adopt a clear “Revoke Article 50” policy in the event of winning the coming General Election or, less controversially, stick to the existing policy of holding a Second Referendum? David and I had discussed this on the way to Bournemouth and my instinct was that the new policy risked alienating “soft Remainers” for whom a natural way to break the impasse should be a Referendum. But I was genuinely open minded and was keen to hear the arguments from both sides. When it came to the vote I finally came down in favour of the motion, persuaded by the idea that we had to be seen to be “Hard Remainers” in Scotland to be credible opponents to a resurgent SNP. Whether this calculation pays off we shall simply have to wait and see. In any event the debate was well argued and the mood in the hall was firmly with the leadership.
The other highlight of Sunday morning was the valedictory speech made by Vince Cable. He used his time to extremely good effect, lacing his defenestration of Brexit in general and the Conservative Party in particular with both intellectual rigor and understated humour, not the least of which was his reference, in Latin, to Tacitus who observed how leaders who over reach themselves are always undone by “the people”. He observed that this message should not be lost on Johnson, the self-styled Latin scholar! He received a well-deserved standing ovation and it was a particular highlight for me to shake his hand later that afternoon and thank him personally for his leadership these last few years.
And so to the afternoon sessions. There were two slots that I wanted to attend as well as a compulsory visit to the beach. The first was a Q&A session with Jo, fresh back from London and he BBC interview. This was notable for the free ranging selection of topics and an opportunity to see Jo in a more informal way. It was also an opportunity for her to explain the detailed thinking behind the “Revoke Article 50” message which, to be clear, would only apply in the highly unlikely circumstances of a Lib Dem overall majority in the next Parliament. In all other circumstances the policy remains to back a Second Referendum.
The other session that we were keen to attend was the “speed dating” event with our 16 Lib Dem MEP’s. I was keen to identify opportunities to meet them in Brussels and to offer my support in specific policy areas, notably to press the idea of explicitly benchmarking how other EU countries address certain policies that Lib Dems want to promote in the UK. I left this session with two overall impressions. First, that all focus by these MEP’s is currently on stopping Brexit and that all else is frankly irrelevant unless and until that objective is secured. And second, if and when Brexit is cancelled, there will be an opportunity to engage with our new MEP’s in Brussels.
And so to Monday, our final day at Conference. Chucka Umuna’s speech and to leave in the early afternoon for our return to Brussels. Chucka is an impressive and fluent speaker and clearly feels very comfortable in his new Party. My sense is that this is well reciprocated – perhaps more so than towards some of the Conservative Party escapees. If I am right in this assessment – based on what I’ve read and heard in Conference and the wider media – then this serves to re-emphasise the point I made earlier about the challenge facing Jo, irrespective of the Brexit outcome, concerning the management and integration of a broader church membership and leadership. My sense is that traditional Lib Dem’s are more comfortable tacking to the left than the right. We shall see.
Before we set off for Dover I was keen to take a final walk along the beach front promenade. I bought a cup of rum and raison ice cream and sat down next to a very elderly couple on a bench. We got talking and they were surprised and interested to hear that I had come over from Brussels and why I had joined the Lib Dems. It turned out that the gentleman next to me had last been to Brussels in 1944 as part of the British Liberation army under Montgomery! His wife was a Brexit supporter, he was less sure. As I got up to leave them – and mindful of what Guy Verhofstadt had told us at The Rally on Saturday night – I shared one of my own anecdotes with them concerning a conversation I had some years ago with the father of a Flemish friend of mine. He had relayed to me how, as a teenage boy, he retained vivid memories of the day British soldiers entered the town of Turnhout to liberate them from the Nazis. And how eternally grateful and appreciative he had been. And how fond of the British he had remained throughout his long life. And with that I simply asked them to bear in mind how sad The Belgians and many other Europeans would feel if the British really did follow through on this mad idea of Brexit.
Adam Pharaoh September 2019