Lib Dems make gains but former leader ‘dies by the sword’

One-time deputy PM Nick Clegg is the biggest casualty of the general election

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and his predecessor, Nick Clegg. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron and his predecessor, Nick Clegg. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty

 

The Liberal Democrats added three seats in the UK election, an improvement on their disastrous 2015 performance, but their 12-seat haul masked embarrassing defeats for Britain’s so-called third party.

The party’s former leader Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister to David Cameron in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition from 2010 to 2015, was the biggest casualty of the 2017 election.

He lost his seat in Sheffield Hallam by almost 1,500 votes to the 35-year-old Labour candidate, Jared O’Mara.

Leader Tim Farron clung on to his seat in Westmorland and Lonsdale in Cumbria, but his majority fell from 8,949 to just 777, a by-product of a lacklustre campaign in which he struggled to be noticed.

On the plus side, the election brought the return of Lib Dem former ministers Vince Cable in Twickenham, Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire and Ed Davey in Kingston and Surbiton.

Mr Cable, business minister in the coalition government, took back the seat he lost to Conservative Tania Mathias in 2015, with a healthy majority of 9,762.

The Lib Dems scored a surprise win from the Scottish National Party in Scotland’s Highlands as local councillor Jamie Stone won in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.

Mr Farron said the party had “made progress in incredibly difficult circumstances and we face parliament in a far stronger position than we left the last one”.

Clegg visibly upset

In his concession speech, Mr Clegg, visibly upset by his defeat, defended his record and his decision to enter government with the Conservatives seven years ago, a move that cost his party 49 seats.

“In my time in parliament I have never shirked from political battles,” he said. “I have never retreated from the political battlefield. I have always sought to stand by the liberal values I believe in. But I have, of course, encountered this evening something that many people have encountered before me tonight . . . you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”

Mr Clegg’s decision to renege on a 2010 election promise to block tuition fee increases appeared to have finally caught up with him in a constituency that is home to two universities.

In a postmortem speech the morning after the election, Mr Farron paid tribute to the former leader as a “giant” of politics, saying: “History will be kind to Nick and the new parliament immensely poorer.”

“Not only did he lead our party into government for the first time in generations, but he did so in the most difficult circumstances, for the most noble of reasons,” he said.

The pro-European Lib Dems sought to tap the 48 per cent who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum last year by pledging to hold a second referendum where voters could accept the final exit agreement or choose to remain in the bloc, but most Remainers have moved on.

The party’s attempt to cast itself as a progressive, centre-left alternative to the two main parties failed to catch fire as a polarised electorate handed the Tories and Labour their largest combined election vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems in the middle and marking a return to two-party politics.

On Friday Mr Farron ruled out the possibility of supporting the Conservatives in another coalition, using Ms May’s much-quoted line on the Brexit negotiation: “No deal is better than a bad deal.”

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