Welsh Lib Dem leader urges party to renew home rule for Wales pledge

Jane Dodds speaking at the Liberal Democrat conference rally in Bournemouth Credit: PA, Jonathan Brady

'The tree is being shaken,' said the former Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Mike German when I bumped into him at the party's conference in Bournemouth.

We were talking about the fact that while Britain's Brexit crisis may be tearing apart other parties, it seems to be reinvigorating the Lib Dems who even at last year's conference looked like they were facing political oblivion.

I bumped into another veteran Welsh figure too, Lord Roger Roberts, who told me, ‘I’ve seen some highs and lows. But this is the biggest high yet. You can see it. Real change.’

Then he gripped my arm and looked me in the eye before adding, 'At my first conference there were 180 delegates. For this one there are 4,000.’

I'm quoting these two Welsh figures who've stuck with their party through thick and thin to show you that they and others sense genuine change in the air.

Yes, the Lib Dems are always optimistic and were so even at conferences when there was little evidence to support that optimism.

But this time there's a real prospect that the long-promised fightback is actually taking place.

And it's not just the increasing size of the party in parliament thanks to defections from other parties which is fuelling the optimism.

I understand that the Lib Dems' have commissioned data preference analysis from YouGov which along with private polling shows they could go from their current 18 seats to gain 80-100 if an election were held right now or win up to a scarcely-believable 230 seats if their support were to increase by just 5%.

I know, I know. Don't shoot the messenger. I'm not claiming anything more for these figures than that I was struck that they're being discussed and apparently taken seriously by the party.

In this context Jane Dodds is also being celebrated for representing the turnaround the Lib Dems believe they're experiencing.

While I was interviewing her earlier we were repeatedly interrupted by members from other parts of the UK coming up to her to shake her hand or hug her in order to congratulate her for winning the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election in August.

She'll be making her first speech since becoming an MP in Bournemouth today (Sunday) and will be making a pitch with an old Liberal idea: Home Rule for Wales and a federal structure for the UK.

She's expected to say:

I want us to be the champions of a federal UK, a truly equal family of nations – ensuring that every part of this union has a voice, backed up by real, meaningful devolution.

We’ve been talking about this for years. The idea of Home Rule was first floated back in 1886, but never has it been the focus of our attention.

Now is the time for us to be the party that picks up that standard.

– Jane Dodds MP, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader

I put it to her that it was an old idea and and anyway that, with support apparently growing for independence, it's an idea that's behind the curve. This is what she said:

Old ideas are good ideas, we can't dismiss them just because they're old. We have to make sure we have home rule in wales but we want a federalist approach as well. We want to make sure the union but that we have our fair share.

[As for] independence: I want us to be in the union. We're very clear that we want Wales to be part of a bigger team.

– Jane Dodds MP, Welsh Liberal Democrats
Tory defector Sam Gyimah and Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson Credit: PA, Jonathan Brady

There is some tension. Some members are uncomfortable that their party is embracing former Conservatives such as Phillip Lee and Sam Gyimah who have in the past taken a less liberal approach to issues important to Lib Dems such as equal marriage.

Jane Dodds told me that she's spoken to all the defectors and is convinced that they're 'liberal at heart' but the leadership has some work to do to overcome the upset.

It doesn't seem to be detracting from the sense of optimism here in Bournemouth. Optimism that for the first time in a long while seems to be justified.