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Lib Dems start conference amid rumours of sixth MP defection

Leader Jo Swinson is looking to strengthen her party’s pro-EU position by making it policy to revoke Article 50 without a second referendum.

Jo Swinson (centre) is greeted by party members as she arrives for the Liberal Democrats autumn conference in Bournemouth (Jonathan Brady/PA)
Jo Swinson (centre) is greeted by party members as she arrives for the Liberal Democrats autumn conference in Bournemouth (Jonathan Brady/PA)

By Patrick Daly, PA Political Correspondent

The Liberal Democrat conference has started with an air of mystery as rumours circle that another MP could be about to defect to the anti-Brexit party.

The party faithful are feeling buoyant after a stream of former Tories and Labour MPs joined the party in recent weeks, including former minister Dr Philip Lee and Liverpool Wavertree representative Luciana Berger.

There continues to be rumours that another could be about to join their number, making it six defections in 2019.

The running order to a member’s rally, due to be held at 6.15pm, mention that leader Jo Swinson will introduce a “mystery man” to the conference hall.

We got into this mess as a result of having a referendum in the first place and that (revoking Article 50) is the only satisfactory way out of it Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson on cancelling Brexit

The name of the European Parliament’s Brexit chief, Guy Verhofstadt MEP, also appears on the running order, seen by PA news agency.

A defection would be more good news for leader Mrs Swinson, who is preparing to strengthen her party’s pro-European Union credentials before any upcoming snap election.

She will be asking members to sign-off on her policy of revoking Article 50, without the need for a second referendum, if the Lib Dems win a majority at the next election.

Mrs Swinson said: “We got into this mess as a result of having a referendum in the first place and that (revoking Article 50) is the only satisfactory way out of it.”

It would strengthen the party’s position against Labour and the Green Party, with Jeremy Corbyn’s Opposition favouring negotiating a new deal with Brussels if it is victorious at the polls, with those fresh terms then put to a public vote.

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Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has benefited from a host of defections to her party in recent weeks, including (pictured left) Luciana Berger, MP for Liverpool Wavertree (Jonathan Brady/PA Wire)

Arriving smiling at Bournemouth International Centre on Saturday morning, the East Dunbartonshire MP has been busy touring the venue and taking to the streets to meet would-be voters.

Baroness Sal Brinton, president of the Lib Dems, said in her speech on Saturday that the new MP recruits were “learning fast”.

“They have also been on a journey to becoming Liberal Democrats, and they are learning fast. As a party, we are on that journey too,” she told members.

The peer hit out at the “vindictive” Prime Minister and his “sidekick” Dominic Cummings for ejecting 21 Tory rebels who voted against the Government on the issue of keeping a no-deal Brexit on the table.

Former leader Sir Vince Cable, meanwhile, predicted that a new “version” of Theresa May’s Brexit deal could win support in the Commons.

There has been talk of bringing the former PM’s deal back for a fourth time, albeit with alterations to the backstop negotiated by Mr Johnson.

Speaking at a fringe event, Sir Vince said Conservative and Labour MPs could vote for a version of the deal but confirmed the Lib Dems would insist any exit agreement be subject to a referendum, with an option to remain.

He said: “It does put us into new political territory. I think we have to prepare for it mentally and emotionally.”

Ms Swinson’s move to adopt revoking Article 50 would take the party’s Brexit position further than her predecessor Sir Vince managed.

But Mrs Swinson, whose party still only has 17 seats in the House of Commons, despite the defections, has ruled out going into coalition with either of the two major parties – a stance that would hinder the chance of getting the opportunity to undo Article 50.

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State of the parties in the House of Commons

She told The Guardian the Lib Dems would not have even an informal support arrangement with a Corbyn-led government, despite co-operating with Labour to block a no-deal Brexit.

“Jeremy Corbyn is not fit to be prime minister. Boris Johnson is not fit to be prime minister. On a daily basis we get evidence of both of those things,” she said.

Mrs Swinson accused Mr Corbyn of “totally, totally failing” to eradicate anti-Semitism from Labour and said Mr Johnson viewed politics as “a game”.

“(Mr Corbyn) is trying to take our country into Brexit. He has failed to tackle anti-Semitism in his own party,” she told the paper.

“In Boris Johnson’s case, I just do not think he cares about people.

“I think he only cares about himself. I find it easy to get on with most people in politics, but I find that difficult to respect.”

PA

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