I’m on the train returning home from Brussels after a day speaking to European liberal leaders, ahead of the European Council, and then briefing the gathered media on the Liberal Democrat campaign for a People’s Vote, to stop Brexit.
Given that the United Kingdom has caused such huge difficulties and tumult in the European Union, the warm reception given to us by our sister parties – patient, rather sad – is always impressive. I emphasised to the danger the Prime Minister is placing both the UK and Europe in, by arguing for a short extension which simply postpones the cliff edge we have been facing. What is needed now is a long extension to Article 50, to permit a real rethink and a final public say on the deal.
It is very important on these occasions that we get the chance to remind liberals in Europe that the Brexit story is far from over domestically: government ministers will always say they are ‘delivering the will of the people’. In truth, the ‘no deal’ exit Theresa May is threatening us with would be a total distortion of that result, abandoning many Leave voters as well as the 16.1 million who voted Remain. Now, around 60% say they would vote for Remain rather than the deal or ‘no deal’, so the will of the people is changing.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for my European counterparts was when I articulated our own position – agreed at conference just last weekend. If there is no extension, and we are approaching the ‘No Deal’ cliff edge, Liberal Democrats are clear: we should revoke Article 50 rather than crash out. There was a ripple of applause in the room when I said as much. Revocation would be a major step, causing huge unrest, but it is preferable to leaving without a deal.
The biggest non-event of the week was my meeting yesterday (Wednesday) with the Prime Minister. No 10 called my office mid-morning, asking to meet in the evening. There was a frisson of excitement around the place: might she have something really significant to say? In the event, the only thing that really happened was that Jeremy Corbyn stalked out before anyone had sat down: a childish display of pique when he discovered Chuka Umunna would also be in the room.
Once the discussion got going, it became embarrassingly clear that the PM just wanted to repeat to us all the things she has already said a hundred times in public. She doesn’t seem to appreciate that finding a way through will involve some change in position on her part, and she is needlessly dismissive of the proposition that attaching a referendum to the deal might be the best (and the only) way to get it through Parliament.
These circumstances create a dizzying rollercoaster. Some days it’s clear the PM is on the backfoot, and the People’s Vote is in the ascendant. Other days she seems to regain initiative. It’s our responsibility to make sure this weekend puts fresh wind in the sails of the People’s Vote campaign – one I am determined we should win. I will be leading our troops on the march on Saturday and speaking to the crowd at the end. I hope to see you there too.