Liberal Democrat party big hitters and activists put on their best socks and sandals and came together this weekend to attempt to build momentum for the May European elections. Their conference was dominated by a man who wasn’t even there… UKIP leader Nigel Farage.
Conference keynote speakers mentioned him either directly or indirectly, and every speech seemed to feature a joke or dig at him.
I tried to count all the references to Farage, but lost track after three MEPs spoke at the opening rally. Farage’s image was even splashed across the whole of page 7 of the conference programme.
Lib Dem Party President Tim Farron seemed to make a not to subtle comparison between UKIP and the British National Party (BNP). In one speech he quickly jumped from talking about fighting UKIP, to driving out Nick Griffin’s party from the north of England.
It all culminated in Lorely Burt MP, who was recently defeated for the deputy leadership of the party, taking to the stage and jiggling about with a pint, a fag, and a Nigel Farage mask. It was pretty horrifying – calling to mind Sarah Teather’s terrible stand up comedy routine from 2011.
Unlike the Conservatives, the unashamedly pro-EU Liberal Democrats don’t necessarily fear that they will lose votes directly to UKIP. It’s not like the two parties have many policy positions in common.
Instead, they are more interested in positioning themselves as the direct opposite to Farage’s group – giving voters a choice between one or the other: in or out.
The whole of last weekend was based around getting that message out, including a massive ‘IN’ sign adorning the entrance to the conference centre. Surely enough it became quite the photo-op spot for activists.
At first this may seem like an odd tactic given the Lib Dems are in government and UKIP don’t even have a Member of Parliament. But a significant minority of the British public remain pro-European, about 37 percent. As a senior Lib Dem source put it: “thats about 30 percent higher than we’re polling at the moment!”
Quite simply, if you’re pro Britain being in the EU, the Lib Dems want you to vote for them. It is the same issue that Ed Miliband fudged this week, as a new poll showed that more Brits now want to stay in than get out.
Tory sources fear they will finish third in this May’s European elections, and their coalition partners also need to shore up their support to avoid electoral wipeout.
The Liberal Democrats have decided that for now, going to head-to-head with Farage is their best hope.