How the Lib Dems plan to surge into election contention

The Liberal Democrats are loving life at the moment.

For a party evangelically opposed to leaving the European Union, Brexit has been the best thing that could have happened to them.

Polling at around twenty per cent, with their biggest membership ever (120,000) and the most MPs they’ve had since the party’s epic collapse in 2015 - Jo Swinson has been mopping up defections left, right and centre on an almost weekly basis since being elected leader in July.

As they meet in Bournemouth this weekend for their party conference, rumours are rife that at least one more MP could join them. I understand a number conversations have been taking place with sitting MPs in attempt to convince them to come aboard ahead of an opening rally on Saturday night.

Heidi Allen will not be joining the Lib Dems. Credit: PA

One MP who won't be defecting this weekend is former Conservative and ChangeUK MP Heidi Allen, who campaigned on behalf of the Lib Dems in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election.

She told me categorically "it is not me" and she would be remaining Independent, but added she believed another MP would be joining the party this weekend.

One politician who I understand could attend Saturday night's rally is Guy Verhofstadt - the EU's Brexit co-coordinator and Liberal MEP - who has become one of the mist disliked EU figures among Brexiteers for his criticism of the UK's decision to leave the EU.

Then on Sunday, Jo Swinson will make her boldest move to date - asking Lib Dem members to approve her policy of revoking Article 50, in other words, cancel Brexit altogether, ahead of a potential autumn General Election.

Guy Verhofstadt is a very vocal critic of Brexit. Credit: PA

It's likely to prove popular on the conference floor and pass with little opposition, but it hasn't received unanimous support within the parliamentary party.

Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb said proposing to cancel Brexit without a referendum would leave half the country "angry and feeling that the social contract has been broken”.

So what’s the thinking behind it?

Well as one Lib Dem MP put it to me: "This election will be the Brexit election - it is a defacto referendum. And if we win, we will see that as an endorsement of our position, and our position is to Remain."

Another Lib Dem source said it is about setting out a clear difference between the Lib Dem's position and the Labour Party's.

For them, the general election is likely to become a battle over deal or no deal, with the Conservatives promising to deliver Brexit and keep no deal on the table, and Labour promising to take no deal off the table, negotiating a deal and then putting it in a referendum alongside a Remain option," they said.

Norman Lamb knows the complexities around Brexit. Credit: PA

By promising to revoke, the Lib Dems are not hoping to "squeeze the Labour vote" - telling voters who want to Remain to vote Lib Dem and voters who want to leave to vote Conservative.

Leave or Remain. Lib Dem or Conservative. That's the way the Lib Dems will frame the upcoming election.

But while they think it will be a vote-winner, it could potentially put off potential defectors. One MP who had been thinking of joining the Lib Dems told ITV News this week: “For me revoking Article 50 is just the opposite of No Deal - neither brings the country back together.” They have since cooled on the idea of jumping ship.

The shift towards revoke is likely to be a temporary one. If the party fails to win the upcoming election, it will return to it's previous policy in pushing for a referendum in which they would campaign for Remain.