Report on the Lib-Dem Autum Conference 2017

Some key messages emerging from debates and conversations on Brexit

Conference passed the motion Opposing Brexit as amended by Amendment 1.  This calls for an Exit from Brexit referendum “once the outcome of the UK-EU negotiations is known, for the public to choose between “the deal” or Britain remaining a full member of the EU.”  It also commits the Lib Dems to continue to campaign for Britain to remain a full and active member of the EU.

Sadly my proposed amendment to Amendment 1 (along with 10 other proposed amendments) was not selected for debate nor was I called to speak.

I did, however, speak on the key points at a side meeting on Brexit.  These points were:-

  • to propose a long-stop date of 29th March 2021, by which time the Exit from Brexit referendum must be held, irrespective of the state of negotiations; and
  • to question the uneasy, double-negative slogan Exit from Brexit and to re-emphasise Lib Dems are the Remain party by replacing it with something like Think Again – Remain.

Vince Cable stamped his authority throughout as the new leader and was most impressive on both Brexit and wider policy issues.  He likes to emphasise he doesn’t seek a second referendum, but “a first referendum on the facts”.

On economics, Vince said the post-Referendum devaluation would lead to a squeeze on public sector pay, make UK companies sitting-ducks for overseas takeovers, reduce investment in the UK, cause businesses to emigrate and drain EU talent from the UK.  The UK economy is woven into that of Europe such that post-Brexit a vast array of new deals, stretching from airline regulations to blood standards, will need to be negotiated and approved by 27 nations.  A soft Brexit will prove impossible.  New deals will be unachievable without allowing free movement of people.

Personally, I agree strongly with the “woven in” concept.  It applies not just to economics, but more profoundly to culture.  It is inconceivable that we can unpick the myriad threads that bind together the UK and the rest of Europe in the areas of history, arts, sciences and education.

Another speaker with decades of experience of high-level work in Brussels stressed how colossal is the current influence of the UK across all EU programmes, and thus how massive will be the UK’s loss of power post-Brexit.

Re immigration, it was noted how much greater the intolerance is in regions of the UK where immigration is low compared with where levels are high.  There was some limited support for the ideas put forward by Tony Blair to mitigate numbers.

Re campaigning generally, there was a strong and widespread belief that full respect must be shown to the views of Leavers; and the emphasis should be on pointing out how the emerging reality of leaving is so different from the promises given to the electorate before the Referendum, i.e. giving Leavers space to retreat with honour.

Various speakers, including Deputy Leader Jo Swinson, emphasised the importance of emotional content in campaigning.  The appeal must be to the heart as much as the head.  This is particularly the case where immigration is concerned.  Statistics have little impact compared with humanised messages, e.g. demonstrating the benefits migrants bring to local communities, both immediately and in the longer term through building businesses etc; the horrors of border controls and the pleasures of free movement.  The power of online creative videos with subliminal pro-Europe messaging – potentially going viral – was mentioned.

Led by Vince, there was general enthusiasm for widespread collaboration with Remainers in other parties and with all pro-European movements.  Lord (Dick) Newby, Lib Dems leader in the Lords, believes we can best achieve a further Referendum by collaboration with Labour to bring down the Government when it becomes highly vulnerable in debates over the coming year.

Other key Lib Dem figures I met on Brexit matters include:-

Baroness (Julie) Smith of Newnham: Cambridge academic and spokesperson on Europe

Tom Brake MP: shadow for Exiting the EU and International Trade

Sir Nick Harvey: former Coalition Minister and acting Lib Dems CEO.  He is very keen for the party to develop three or four core policy messages

Lord (Tim) Clement-Jones: spokesman on the Creative Industries

Anthony Hook: young Lib Dem Councillor in Faversham – one to watch

Catherine Bearder: Lib Dems sole MEP – powerful pro-Europe speaker

Duncan Greenland: Major donor and former party Treasurer

Michael Young: recently appointed EM CEO – spoke very strongly about EM’s unambiguous Remain stance and the need for alliances with all pro-Europe organisations – much already achieved, now working on OB.

Paul Hienkens: former head of Lib Dems South East

Emma Cherniavsky: Lib Dems Director of Fundraising


Richard Morris

22nd September 2017