This election was meant to be the Liberal Democrat resurrection. Reduced under Nick Clegg from 57 to eight MPs, the Lib Dems believed they had found a cause. With Theresa May offering unequivocal Brexit, and Jeremy Corbyn waffling incomprehensibly on the subject, they would be the unapologetic Europhiles.
As an exercise in niche marketing, it seemed to make sense. Only 8% of voters backed the Lib Dems in 2015; but 48% backed Remain the following year. Sure, not all of the 48% would transfer their votes on the European question. But if just one in six did, the Lib Dems could double their support. And if that recovery were concentrated in seats where Remainers were thick on the ground – notably in London – Tim Farron might end up with a respectable number of MPs.
So much for the theory. In practice, there is no sign of it working. Opinion polls suggest that the Lib Dems are, at most, two or three points above where they were in 2015. While they could pick up more seats there is, again, little indication of it. In an election that is supposed to be all about Brexit, and in which the Tories are successfully speaking to and for the 52%, there is no equivalent realignment among the 48%.
Why not? Two reasons. First, and most obviously, we are a democratic country. We don't see votes as an irksome technical necessity, in the way that, say, Vladimir Putin does. We take them seriously. According to YouGov, most of the 48% accept the outcome of the referendum and think the government should get on with leaving. The country now wants Brexit implemented by a margin of 68 to 22%. And even among that unreconciled 22%, many will cast their votes on the basis of, say, tax or education rather than because of something that was decided last year.
The bigger problem for the Lib Dems, though, is that their stance on Brexit appears not just anti-democratic but unpatriotic. They give the impression of wanting the Brexit talks to fail, even if that means a worse outcome for everyone. They gleefully repeat and retweet predictions of an economic downturn, while studiously ignoring evidence of an economic upturn. Whenever Britain and Brussels clash during the talks – even on the issue of financial liabilities – they side with Brussels.
You don't have to be a Leave voter to find this off-putting. Online Remainers may come across as pessimistic, irrational, and anti-British; but flesh-and-blood Remainers are, in my experience, level-headed and balanced. They are as unimpressed as anyone else by the bitter tone taken by the A.C. Graylings and Nick Cleggs and Gina Millers.
Think of how the Lib Dems reacted when Jean-Claude Juncker leaked an account of his dinner with Theresa May. Even if we take Juncker's version of events at face value, it is clear that Theresa May wants a close relationship with the EU after we leave, and was proposing various ways in which Britain might retain some institutional links. Juncker's response to her outstretched hand was to swat it away. "Brexit cannot be a success!" he reports himself as saying.
Now since the Lib Dems have been calling for the closest possible relationship with the EU, you might expect them to be pleased by the PM's stance. At the very least, you'd expect them to back her rather than Juncker, who is calling for the hardest of hard Brexits – something they oppose. But no, the beat of their ancestral drum is too strong. In any dispute between Britain and the EU, they instinctively rally to the 12-star flag.
Thus, Nick Clegg reacted to the leak by calling the PM "incompetent and unprepared", adding: "You cannot treat the rest of the EU as if you were sort of ordering about Home Office officials, and that's the way Number 10 seems to be operating." Tim Farron agreed: "It's clear the Government has no clue and is taking the country toward a disastrous hard Brexit."
Just think how this comes across to moderate, pragmatic Remain voters. Here is Theresa May behaving like a grown-up, seeking to ensure that UK-EU relations remain warm and friendly; here is Juncker responding telling her that she must fail; and here are the Lib Dems siding with the Eurocrat.
Whichever way you voted in the referendum, that is a deeply unappealing sight. It's extraordinary, in a way, that the Lib Dems can't understand how they are coming across.
Then again, as that great early Tory Jonathan Swift once remarked, it is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of a London coffee house for the voice of the kingdom.