Brexit has been the defining issue in British politics since the country voted to leave the European Union in 2016. In fact, 65% of the British public believes it’s the most important issue facing the nation. Now, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives seek to win a majority in Parliament and finally bring the country out of negotiations. However, they face a resurgent competitor from the centre: the Liberal Democratic party.

This moderate party opposes Brexit and is calling for a cancellation of the Brexit procedures, or a second referendum. Since the last general election in 2017, when the party won 7.9% of the popular vote and only 12 seats, it has seen a surge in the polls, regularly polling at over twice their previous share of the popular vote. The party is now under new leadership with Jo Swinson, and has broken the threshold necessary to have a presence in Parliament that could give a Conservative or Labour minority the votes it needs to govern.

Should the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power, it would mark a new era in Brexit policy, since the party would likely have the power to influence a Conservative or Labour minority to soften the current Brexit deal.

Will the Lib Dems hold the balance of power?

The Liberal Democrats’ chances to ascend to the office of prime minister are tremendously slim, but the party could well hold the number of seats needed to give another party the votes it needs in a coalition or a support agreement. While Swinson did not specify whether she would go into coalition, the party agreed at its convention in September that it would push for a second referendum if it didn’t achieve a majority.

Nobody can say whether the Liberal Democrats will end up holding the balance of power, but their odds look quite favourable at the moment. Their poll numbers are robust, and based on previous election results (most notably 2001), they are roughly on track to win over 50 seats out of 650.

Furthermore, the Conservatives, though polling well, face another challenger in Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party from their right flank. The Brexit Party is a party whose sole issue is delivering a hard Brexit, and will criticize Johnson for any shiftiness and failure to meet commitments.

Its share of the popular vote (hovering around 10%) is similar to UKIP, Farage’s first party, which in received 12.6% of the vote but only seated one MP in 2015. The Brexit party did, however, win the most recent European election in the U.K. with over 30% of the vote, and recently agreed not to contest current Conservative seats.

While one might expect the party to enjoy electoral success, its support probably won’t be concentrated enough to make them anything more than a spoiler in seats that the Conservatives hope to win back. The party’s primary role in this election may be splitting the right-wing vote in key constituencies, delivering them to Labour or the Lib Dems. 

Another faction that could hold the balance of power either in place of or alongside the Liberal Democrats is the pro-independence Scottish National Party. It is a regionally concentrated party and has previously won more than 50 seats with 4.7% of the vote. The party is currently sitting at 4% in the polls, and would doubtlessly push a similarly anti-Brexit agenda if put in a position to do so. However, because of their separatist leanings, the party is much trickier for the two large unionist parties to work with.

While the Liberal Democrats could well double their seats, they could see even further gains due to a split vote among “leave” voters. This makes the odds of a Tory minority with the Lib Dems holding the balance somewhat more likely, and since Scotland only has 59 seats in Westminster, gives them a ceiling higher than the Scottish National Party.

What would the balance of power mean?

Holding the balance of power is no guarantee that the Liberal Democrats will be able to force policies through. Because Labour is not outright opposed to Brexit, it is hypothetically possible that the Tories and Labour will come together to bypass any roadblocks that the Liberal Democrats try to create.

However, this is unlikely. Though both large parties could broadly be said to support Brexit in some form, Labour promises a second referendum between a softer Brexit and remaining. It has even accused the Conservatives of trying to sell out the National Health Service of the UK in its platform on Brexit. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has promised to ask for a further extension as well. 

The Conservatives, on the other hand, promise a speedy exit no later than January of 2020. They want Great Britain to leave the EU customs union without free movement and separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK customs to remain therein.

It is therefore improbable that the two larger parties will work over the heads of the Liberal Democrats. If the Liberal Democrats have influence, the odds of Johson delivering any deal that satisfies intense Brexiteers are long.

The presence of an important voice that unequivocally favours remain could shift the negotiations between the UK and the EU. The Liberal Democratic opposition to Brexit could possibly make any deal requiring its approval softer, and it is hard to imagine the party consenting to any agreement that takes Britain out of the single market or customs union. With each percentage point that the Lib Dems tick upwards in the polls, the less likely a hard Brexit becomes.

Edited by Rebecka Pieder.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

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