Nick Clegg should return as leader of the Liberal Democrats, according to participants in the latest HuffPost UK-Edelman general election focus group.
Former Lib Dem voters in the traditional three-way battleground constituency of Watford revealed they did not like current leader Tim Farron - who was seen as “weak” and “a bit shifty”.
The party, which has not seen a surge in the polls during the campaign as many expected, was also said to have “lost their way” since the coalition years.
The Lib Dem flagship policy of holding a second referendum did grab the attention of some. But others, including Remain voters, said the UK had “made a decision” and should accept Brexit.
All nine of the men and women who took part in the focus group, which was held on Thursday evening, voted Lib Dem in 2010. But they all revealed they would now be voting Conservative on June 8.
Watford currently has a Tory MP, Richard Harrington, who is sitting on a 9,794 majority. Between 1997 and 2010, the constituency had a Labour MP, Claire Ward.
The Lib Dems dropped to third place behind Labour in 2015, but in 2010 the Lib Dem candidate Sal Brinton, now party president, came within 1,425 votes of capturing the seat from the Conservatives.
Watford’s sitting mayor, Dorothy Thornhill, is a Lib Dem.
Asked whether Farron or Clegg should be Lib Dem leader after the election, eight of the focus group said Clegg while one said neither.
Gloria, a customer service adviser with two children at university, said Farron was “nondescript”.
But she liked how Clegg “watered down the hardness of the Conservatives” during his time as deputy prime minister. “I thought he was brilliant,” she said.
John B, a father of two who works in IT and voted for Brexit, said Farron was “a bit weak” but liked Clegg.
“There was something trustworthy about him,” he said about the former Lib Dem leader. “I think he is very personable guy. I think he is trustworthy. I like the way he carries himself. I think he can relate to the average man on the street. I think he fits quite nicely into the middle ground.”
And he was a fan of the coalition. “I thought they may have tempered some of the nastiness and helped put it where I thought it should be. I would quite like a mix between the Conservatives and the Liberals - that worked quite well for me,” he said.
Fiona, a part time project manger for a telecoms company with two young children, said Clegg was “someone you can relate to”, and added “I find him very trustworthy”.
Of Farron, Fiona said: “I don’t feel like I trust him. I don’t get like what I felt for Nick Clegg. I don’t get that same feeling. He’s a bit shifty.”
The Lib Dems were “diluted now,” she said. “They have lost their way.”
Mel, a team leader for a retail company with two children in their twenties, said she had been “completely won over” by Clegg’s performance in the 2010 TV election debates. “He seemed normal as well. Very grounded.”
“I liked Nick Clegg. He came across really well. I thought he was very personable and a great debater. I liked his family as well. I warmed to him, I was surprised I did,” she said.
However Mel did think Clegg had been “David Cameron’s puppet”.
The focus group, conducted by Edelman’s James Morris, was held after the campaign had been paused for a few days in the wake of the terror attack in Manchester.
Lindsay, who works part time at a soft furnishing company and has three children, agreed that Clegg was “more like your everyman” and “not untouchable”.
She was less impressed with Farron. “He doesn’t seem to have a backbone basically,” she said.
John A, a training coordinator at a local construction firm, said he “agreed with a lot more of their [Lib Dem] views than other political parties” but was unhappy with Farron’s “un-liberal” views on LGBT issues.
“I find some of his views quite contrary to what I would have traditionally thought of being quite liberal view, things like gay sex and gay marriage and whether that’s a sin. I have always thought of liberals not having those types of views,” he said.
At the start of the campaign Farron refused to say whether he thought gay sex was a sin. He later clarified that he did not.
John A was concerned about how Farron would fare on the world stage if he were in No.10. “He’s not very prime ministerial, I can’t imagine him in the same arena as Putin or Donald Trump. I can imagine him being quite a weak personality compared to the heavyweights,” he said.
Tony, who used to work in a university and has three grown up children, did not want Clegg or Farron to be Lib Dem leader and said he thought voters wanted older politicians.
“Cameron, Clegg and Obama. We have had three leaders out of work experience and its not have a happy experience,” he said.
“In the US one was 69 [Hilary Clinton] one was 70 [Donald Trump]. Theresa May is of relatively mature years, so is Jeremy Corbyn. Maybe the electorate is saying, having experienced the youth making their mistakes in government, now we want someone with more gravitas than young Tim.”
Farron has bet the Lib Dem house on running an overtly pro-Remain general election campaign in the hope a substantial number of the 48% who wanted to stay in the EU will switch to his party.
In the wake of the local election results the party predicted it was on course to at least double its number of MPs from the current nine.
However a YouGov poll for The Times on Monday showed the Lib Dems are on 10%.
Watford, on the outskirts of north West London, voted by the narrowest of margins to leave, 50.3%, the EU last June.
Some in the focus group, even if they backed Remain, felt the country should accept the result. However others were interested in the Lib Dem idea of another vote.
Gloria, who voted Remain, was not convinced by the Lib Dem policy of holding a second referendum on the Brexit deal. “We made a decision so we’ve got to [leave] now. He’s saying we can vote to change it? No we can’t change it. We’ve made a decision,” she said.
Van, a laboratory technician with two step children in their twenties, appeared resigned to the Brexit vote. “I voted to Remain,” he said. “But it’s what happened.”
John B, who backed Brexit, said the Lib Dems had an “overly strong” pro-EU position. “If they were a little bit closer to the middle I potentially might be interested,” he said.
And Tony did not think Brussels would be interested in allowing the UK to keep negotiating until it got a deal it liked.
“The negotiations last 24-months and at the end of it you go,” he said. “The idea you can turn around and say you don’t like the deal and we are going to stay isn’t an option, is it?
“Europe said fine you’ve got 24 months and at the end of that, whatever you’ve got or haven’t got, you walk with it.
He added: “It would requite the other 27 countries to say ‘we like the idea of the British having another go’. It requires everyone else to agree. It’s fantasy.”
John A however described himself as “quite pro-EU” having backed Remain. And was worried Brexit was not “properly thought” out. A second referendum interested him.
He said: “I can’t help but think, HS2, that takes year and years, over a decade, on how to build a trainline. Yet something like that [Brexit] can happen over-night. I can’t help but think, to have another option at the end of it, That appeals to me.”
And Fiona added of a second vote: “I voted to Remain, that part of got my attention. I know what you mean that the decision has been made. And really could you actually do something to make that happen? But that’s the bit that got my attention.”
Asked who they would vote for if the election was tomorrow, all nine said Conservative. But it was not with great enthusiasm. One said she “won’t tell my daughter”.
Of the Lib Dems, Mel said: “They haven’t got a chance, so I don’t want to waste my vote.”
HuffPost UK is looking at voters’ priorities outside the hubbub of the election campaign trail and what they want beyond March 29, 2019, not just June 8, 2017. Beyond Brexit leaves the bubble of Westminster and London talk to Britons left out of the conversation on the subjects they really care about, like housing, integration, social care, school funding and air qualityThe members of the focus group,
NOTE: This focus groups was made up of people aged 35-70 from social grade BC1 who voted Lib Dem in 2010 and are likely to vote Tory on June 8. It was conducted on Thursday 25 May.
John A and John B have been given invented surname initials to distinguish them from each other.