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STEPHEN GLOVER: Once she demanded an EU referendum. A U-turn makes her illiberal and undemocratic

The Lib Dems want to stop Brexit – but we shouldn’t get too worked up by the prospect of Prime Minister Swinson

A party which calls itself Liberal Democrat might reasonably be thought to be both liberal and democratic. Unfortunately, this is far from being the case.

On the issue of the EU, the Lib Dems have long been doctrinaire and dogmatic. 

Back in 2013, their then leader, Nick Clegg, said people who wanted Britain to leave the EU were ‘unpatriotic’. Evidently a very tolerant and broad-minded sort of fellow.

So it was no surprise when, within weeks of the June 2016 referendum, the party called for a re-run because it did not at all like the outcome of the first ballot.

But in their determination to reverse that democratic vote – the biggest in this country’s history – the Lib Dems are now going a step further under their new leader, Jo Swinson. 

At their party conference, delegates voted overwhelmingly to scrap Brexit without another referendum if they win power.

This is what one might expect in a party whose zealous activists have paraded T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘B******s to Brexit’ (my asterisks). Not exactly respectful towards those who voted Leave.

Of course, it may be confidently asserted that the chances of the Lib Dems forming the next government are close to zero, though an ever hopeful Miss Swinson talks about the party winning more than 300 seats in a general election.

Just now they have a spring in their step, having performed well in May’s European elections, and attracted a handful of disgruntled Labour and Tory MPs to their parliamentary ranks. But they are stuck at around 16 per cent in the opinion polls, and very far from power.

So we shouldn’t get too worked up by the prospect of Prime Minister Swinson unilaterally revoking Article 50, so that Britain remained in the EU, on arriving at No 10. It is most unlikely to happen.

That said, despite Miss Swinson’s pledge yesterday that the Lib Dems would not ‘prop up a Johnson or Corbyn government’ after an election, the Lib Dems might enter a coalition with Labour, and insist on scuppering Brexit without another referendum.

At all events, the conference decision sends a strong signal to the British public. The dark, undemocratic heart of the Lib Dems has been exposed. A great political party is prepared to ignore the votes of 17.4 million people.

In 2013, the then-leader of the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg, said people who wanted Britain to leave the EU were 'unpatriotic'

In 2013, the then-leader of the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg, said people who wanted Britain to leave the EU were ‘unpatriotic’

How on earth can they contemplate such an eventuality? It would leave this country irrevocably divided, with Brexit voters rightly thinking that their democratic choice had been unceremoniously binned. You might as well set aside the result of a general election.

Boris Johnson has recently been described as a dictator by various liberal-minded folk, but anything he might be accused of doing is dwarfed by the enormity of ignoring the outcome of the biggest democratic exercise in British history.

Jo Swinson’s defence, as I understand it – I’m afraid she gave a poor account of herself in media interviews yesterday – is that people would know what they were voting for. If the Lib Dems emerged triumphant, they would have a mandate to undo Brexit.

This argument is open to several objections. One is that a party could theoretically end up governing the country with only a third of the vote. How would that give it the right to set aside the preferences of more than half of the electorate in a record turnout?

As I say, we shouldn’t ventilate too much about something unlikely to transpire. The point is that the Lib Dems would like it to happen. Miss Swinson is prepared to ride roughshod over our democratic arrangements in a way that makes Boris Johnson look like a novice.

Having observed the party over the years, I’m not surprised. Most Lib Dems are doubtless thoroughly nice people. But their party is not very nice. It is surprisingly ruthless, and adept at twisting the rules. They might be more accurately described as the Illiberal non-Democrats.

We shouldn’t forget how, during the 2010 election campaign, the party solemnly promised to abolish tuition fees. Then, having been tempted into coalition by the Tories, it promptly agreed to treble them.

Even by the standards of modern politics, this cynical somersault took the breath away. It was the action of a sanctimonious party even more shamelessly inconsistent than its larger rivals. Jo Swinson is part of that ignoble tradition. With her soft Scottish accent and youthful open face, she seems as straightforward a woman as you could hope to encounter.

Yet it turns out she is an unusually slippery operator. Not only is she happy to kill off the 2016 referendum result. There was a time, although she has chosen to forget it, when she was herself in favour of an EU referendum.

On Sunday, she declared sententiously that she couldn’t ‘forgive David Cameron for calling the referendum’. Yet in 2008 she proposed an In/Out poll from the Lib Dem benches, and criticised Brussels over its undemocratic procedures.

Granted, politicians are allowed to change their minds, but morally superior Lib Dems seldom admit that they have. Deputy leader Ed Davy yesterday had difficulty in recalling that his party was once in favour of an EU referendum.

I should add that Miss Swinson still has half a foot in the second referendum camp. Until she achieves power, she remains in favour of another People’s Vote. Once in charge, she would drop the idea. Principled and consistent?

Many extreme Remainers will be drawn to her new policy, and cheerfully cast their vote for the Lib Dems when the Prime Minister is eventually allowed to call an election by his opponents.

But I suspect more thoughtful Remainers will think twice before supporting a party which is ready to ignore the votes of the majority in such a divisive and high-handed way.

And I hope Tory voters who are dismayed by the rather brutal treatment meted out by Mr Johnson to Tory MPs who voted with Labour may reflect that the superficially enlightened and broad-minded Lib Dems are far more ruthless.

They might also note that when EU panjandrum Guy Verhofstadt addressed the Lib Dems’ Bournemouth conference, and spoke messianically of the need for a united European ’empire’, the audience responded ecstatically.

Scratch a Liberal Democrat delegate, and you will certainly find an enthusiastic Europhile. Scratch a bit deeper, and you may well find someone who is both shockingly illiberal and undemocratic.