Freshly emboldened by damning reports that claim European officials believe Theresa May is “in another galaxy” with her pledge to secure a hard Brexit, the Liberal Democrats were flying the flag high for Remain as they launched their election battlebus in London on Monday.
“The Lib Dems are the only people offering real hope and a clear way forward to stay in the EU democratically,” the party’s leader Tim Farron told BuzzFeed News as he boarded the wasp-like yellow, black, and orange bus at its final stop in north London.
Emblazoned across the bus with an abstract union jack design on its side was the slogan “Change Britain’s Future”, echoing the core message repeated at the day’s three rallies in Surbiton, Sutton, and Crouch End – key target seats for the Lib Dems – that they are the only party who can hold the PM's government to account on Brexit.
Farron appealed to Leave and Remain voters alike by promising to push May to hold a referendum on the prime minister's final Brexit deal, meaning Britain could only leave the EU if people agreed to her terms – a prospect made more likely if the party can increase its presence in Westminster. The Lib Dems currently hold only nine seats in parliament.
“We are the only hope those who want to stay in the EU have left,” he told BuzzFeed News in Surbiton. “If you’re someone who wants to leave the EU but thinks being outside the single market is barking mad, and incredibly bad news for jobs, house prices, for your weekly shop then you should vote for us because we’re the only opportunity you have to hold the government to account.”
But several people BuzzFeed News spoke to in the constituencies the battle bus visited on Monday were still uncertain of how they would vote, or whether they would vote at all.
Hamza, who was sheltering from the rain in Wood Green, north London, said he wasn’t planning to vote, because he didn’t like any of the parties on offer. Farron’s EU pledges failed to make an impression on him. “I want us to stay in,” he said, “but I don’t think anyone can actually make that happen."
In Wood Green town centre, a woman waiting for a bus, who preferred not to be named, said she hadn’t decided who she would vote for yet, and would see how she felt on 8 June before making a decision. She wasn’t even sure if she would definitely vote, she added. Would the prospect of staying in the EU affect her decision? “I don’t know, it’s all so confusing,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette before she ran off for the bus.
Sharon, who had just visited her 85-year-old father at St Helier hospital in Sutton, where the bus made its second stop of the day, felt there was going to be too much focus on Brexit during this election campaign. “The referendum was called too quickly, and I still don’t fully understand what it will mean for us,” she said.
“We need to be talking about the NHS. It’s the best in the world and we can’t do without it,” she added. Sharon felt that social care was also a big issue that needed to be addressed, noting that there had been no help available for her father after a recent fall. A supporter of Corbyn since the “olden days”, she said she planned to vote Labour, but believed the Tories were headed for a landslide.
Sharon's son Shane said he hadn’t warmed to Corbyn’s Labour and believed the Lib Dems had a good chance of winning the seat in Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park, which is being contested by Amna Ahmad.
“There are people who think Labour have gone too far to the left and the Tories are too far to the right,” he said. “This could be a good chance for the Lib Dems.” Shane still wasn’t sure who he would vote for, but said Europe wasn’t the biggest issue for him either.
Sutton was one of the few areas of London that opted to leave the EU in last June’s vote, with 54% in favour. “I voted in,” he said, “but a lot of people here didn’t, so they do want out." He too expected to see a strong Tory victory in June.
Dan, a Crouch End resident who had not yet decided who to vote for in the Hornsey and Wood Green seat, also believed last June’s referendum should be considered final. “Brexit is a decision that’s happened,” he said. “I understand what [Farron] says about holding May to account on negotiations, but whether he’ll have [what it takes] to back that up is very unlikely.”
When BuzzFeed News put these views to Farron on Monday afternoon he said there was “no doubt whatsoever” that his party had the power to affect the terms by which Britain leaves the EU.
“At the moment there is the assumption that we’re dropping out of the EU and that we’re dropping out on the hardest possible Brexit,” he said. “Our job is to give people real hope that there is a way out of this. The more seats we get the more we can affect the outcome, so don’t give up."
Fraser Chesterman, an 18-year-old from Surbiton who will be voting for the first time this election, seemed to share Farron’s hope, believing that Labour were too divided to offer up any realistic opposition to May’s Brexit plans.
Chesterman said he intended to vote Lib Dem in June: “They’re the only party offering anything of value to a young person."
Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Laura Silver at email@example.com.
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