The Leader: Looking back at the European Elections

My regular blog has been disrupted by the Euro election campaign and its tumultuous, positive, aftermath as well as my decision to hand in my notice and trigger a leadership contest.

The Euro-campaign was defined, for me, by three rallies.

The launch of the campaign took place in Docklands, before the results of the local elections were known. The mood was cautiously optimistic, though questions from journalists focused on the potential impact of Change UK.

Nonetheless, our launch was very professional and suggested to the assembled media that we were well organised and had a clear, simple Stop Brexit message.

Then the spectacular 700+ gains in the local elections transformed our image from also-rans to winners and in my media interviews I picked up a tone of respect for the party which had long been missing.

Today we’re launching our EU Election manifesto as we fight to #StopBrexit

We’re fighting for Remainers across Britain who demand better than Brexit Britain. Join our campaign >

— Liberal Democrats (@LibDems) May 9, 2019

Then, someone had the idea of using the slogan ‘Bollocks to Brexit’. Despite a certain amount of pompous, puritanical poo-pooing from our more priggish detractors, the overwhelming feedback was positive and we made this our theme. It was celebrated at the second rally in Shoreditch – our manifesto launch – where I caught a real sense of excitement and looming opportunity.

After that the wind was behind us and the issue became one of how well we were going to do.

I went to Bristol where the party activists couldn’t quite believe how good their canvassing was; to Scotland where an impressive Change UK candidate had joined us; to Gibraltar for a well organised and highly satisfactory visit – rewarded by a 77% vote for the Lib Dems – and on the way was mobbed at Malaga Airport by a group of young women on a hen party: a first. Then a frantic rush round the country – Liverpool, Birmingham, Cambridge, Scotland again – meeting increasingly excited activists and spontaneously supportive crowds. I hadn’t experienced that since the General Elections in 1997 and 2010.

There was a real sense of excitement around our campaign

The final rally was celebratory but I was nervous; I had a head-to-head debate with Nigel Farage the following morning, courtesy of the Daily Telegraph. Some party insiders were worried having seen Nick Clegg come off worse in a similar encounter and didn’t see the point in taking the risk. I did. If we are to win the Brexit debate – and lead the Remain cause – ultimately, Farage needs to be confronted.

In the event, I got a good write up; Nigel was polite and avuncular, as I know he can be, becoming tetchy only when I reminded him of the hate and division his “Breaking Point” poster had sown.

The outcome overall was that no harm – and some good – was done.

Once I had been to vote at my local polling station in Twickenham, like everyone else we had to wait three days for the result. I went off to mid Wales; to speak at the Hay Festival of Light; to appear at an event in Crickhowell, in support of Jane Dodds’ soon-to-be by-election campaign, and for some restorative walking in the Brecon beacons. Rachel and I spent an idyllic weekend in a remote cottage, a B&B which was described in the literature as ‘the oldest house in Wales’ – a restored 15th century dwelling with characterful hosts who produced marvellous meals, which not have a disgraced a Michelin 5 star.

I woke up last Monday morning to read of our spectacular success: 20% of the vote and 16 MEPs (and the courageous Alliance MEP in Northern Ireland, Naomi Long, will also join our ALDE group in the European Parliament).

Despite attempts by their spinners to portray the result as a victory for Brexit, it was clear that the Remain parties, taken together, and won a clear victory. It was then off to London to celebrate, with a big media scrum at Lambeth Bridge.

Better was to come. A day in Brussels last Tuesday, as part of a gathering of Liberal leaders, collectively buoyed up by all our UK results: the Lib Dems, no longer representing the British awkward squad, but being congratulated as the stars of the show!

And then the icing the cake: a YouGov poll showing the Lib Dems on 24% for a General Election ahead of all other parties.

I try not get carried away, but a pall of distrust and negativity that has hung over the party since the earliest days of the coalition, nine years ago, has gone.

That is a good note to go out on.

I said when I took on the leadership that I hoped to return us to fortunes nearer to those of 2010, and we are clearly now poised for such a position if a General Election is called.

Westminster voting intention:

LDem: 24% (+6)

Brex: 22% (+4)

Con: 19% (-5)

Lab: 19% (-5)

Grn: 8% (+2)

via @YouGov

Chgs. w/ 17 May

— Britain Elects (@britainelects) May 30, 2019

I spent last weekend on the South Downs with a visit to Glyndebourne with friends: a superior performance of the Barber of Seville with an amazing young Korean soprano (Hera Hyesang Park) as Rosina, a future star. And Sunday morning I spent lounging in the sun reading a Frederick Forsyth spy thriller, The Icon: a bit dated but finely crafted, and a reminder of what I have master if I go back to fiction writing.

This week, it has been back to Parliament, with a fair stretch of coverage on our opposition to the Trump visit, and yesterday I was with colleagues from across public life commemorating those who lost their lives on D-day.

A high point for me was Macron’s reading of a 16-year old French resistance fighter’s letter to his parents before execution. It was a privilege to meet the veterans whose legacy is the luxury of a free and peaceful Europe. We are deeply in their debt.