The Liberal Democrats have voted to push for renewed UK membership of the European Union, but only as “a longer-term objective”, as the party used its annual conference to begin a post-Brexit process of rebranding.
The party, which won just 11 seats at December’s election on a platform that included a pledge to rescind Brexit without a public vote if its then leader Jo Swinson became prime minister, has been seeking a way to reconcile its pro-European stance with the reality of departure.
A frontbench motion on Europe at the party’s online-only annual conference this weekend focused mainly on efforts to fight against a no-deal Brexit, and secure the rights of EU citizens in the UK.
It also condemned the internal markets bill proposed by Boris Johnson’s government, which includes a pledge to breach international law in redrawing the Brexit departure deal, as something which “trashes the UK’s reputation, sets a dangerous precedent and almost certainly precludes any chance of a free trade agreement with either the EU or the USA”.
The motion, as initially tabled, said only that the party would “keep all options open for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, including membership at an appropriate future date”.
However, a number of members, including some MPs, believed this was too watered down a commitment, and it was amended before it was voted through.
The agreed version says the party will “support a longer-term objective of UK membership of the EU at an appropriate future date to be determined by political circumstances, subject to public assent, market and trade conditions and acceptable negotiated terms”.
Another possible amendment, which was rejected, gave a stronger commitment to “campaign to rejoin the EU after the post-Brexit transition period ends”.
Christine Jardine, the Lib Dem MP who speaks on Brexit issues, said the party would “never turn our back on our pro-European values, because we are so much better off standing together than we could ever be alone”.
She said: “With our country already facing the biggest economic and health crisis in generations, it is unthinkable that the UK would crash out of the transition period without a deal.
“Boris Johnson must start putting the nation first, rather than sacrificing everything and anything in his ideological pursuit of Brexit. This is about stopping the disaster of food shortages, medicine shortages, and more.”