There’s no doubt Phillip Lee’s defection to the Liberal Democrats was a tremendous piece of parliamentary theatre. During Boris Johnson addressing Parliament, one of his MPs quit, visibly crossed the floor and moved from a party threatening no-deal to one hoping for no-Brexit at all.
In a flash, Johnson’s majority was gone, and it was the talk of Westminster for... all of two hours. Jo Swinson’s power move must have felt like a big win until the gleaming adoration of politicos began to wain and Phillip Lee’s switching sides quickly became old news. As she becomes the visible figurehead for rational politics in an increasingly polarised climate, the Lib Dem leader must be a little more wary of inviting the same spectre that gave her this opportunity into her own home: entryism.
It didn’t take long for the rush of another defection to the Liberal Democrats to feel like a defeat for the party, compare and contrast with the genuine elation members like I felt when Luciana Berger joined on Thursday morning. As Dr. Phillip Lee’s new colleagues began to sing his praises on social media, many members stated their discomfort in sharing a party with a man so seemingly out of step with its values.
In 2014, Lee was accused of championing a bill that aimed to prevent HIV-positive migrants from entering the UK. When he asked this week to clarify his stance, he merely doubled down claiming it was for the ‘protection of gay people’ and claims to the contrary were ’defamation of his character. Yet, it was a policy that the Terrence Higgins Trust said would have been “the most draconian policy enforced on people with HIV by this country to date” and the National Aids Trust (NAT) called “HIV prejudice in its purest form”.
Barely a few hours had passed and Jo Swinson’s big win had descended into a sitting Liberal Democrat MP defending the exact same policy position Nick Clegg had dragged Nigel Farage over the coals for just four years earlier. It is endlessly fascinating that Lee, and the other signatories of his bill, chose HIV as the target for these measures when it is far more treatable and more difficult to catch than other diseases.
And with that considered, is it any wonder that Jennie Rigg, chair of the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats didn’t miss a beat and resigned her membership there and then? This issue was one many members, including myself, were aware of when rumours of Phillip Lee’s defection were circulating earlier this summer. So it begs the question as to why Jo Swinson and the rest of the leadership team made no genuine attempt to discuss the move with the LGBT+ wing of the party, instead opting to blindside them for what ended up being perhaps the fifth most interesting thing to have happened in Westminster that day.
What’s more, despite knowing of this heavy baggage, Phillip Lee’s official statement when joining the party did absolutely nothing to mention why he now considered himself a Lib Dem, other than not liking Brexit very much. I pride myself on not being a tribal person – for my sins, I probably do slip into that behaviour from time to time – but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that a member of the Liberal Democrats parliamentary party be a bloody liberal! Promoting the othering of migrants and reinforcing the stigmatisation of HIV-positive people is the antithesis of what the Liberal Democrats are about. Our slogan, ironically, is ‘Demand Better’ – yet not sharing an HIV policy with Nigel Farage appeared to be too big an ask for a party desperate for headlines.
While the Labour Party have been taken hostage by cultist cranks and the Tories are at the mercy of little Englanders and rampant populists, Lib Dems cannot make the same mistake as their historical adversaries and throw the door open to small-c conservatives because they are now ‘politically homeless’. The Liberal Democrats are not merely the Europhilic opposite of the Brexit Party, we are a liberal and progressive party committed to liberty, equality and community.
As many senior Lib Dems rushed to participate in Lee’s undeserved fanfare yesterday, only Baroness Featherstone, architect of equal marriage under the coalition government, hung back to take stock and offer a solution for Lee’s future in the party. When Luciana Berger joined on Thursday morning, the welcome email from Jo Swinson read like a dossier of liberal superlatives, none of which could be truthfully said about Lee.
Yet, if he can demonstrate he believes in liberalism, LGBT+ rights, and being pro-immigration, then Lib Dems will welcome him like they have Berger. The alternative is that we begin to allow any ‘moderate’ Tory or Labour member in to the party regardless of their commitment to liberalism, and given Jo Swinson’s opponents are desperate to take any opportunity to beat her with the ‘Tory-lite’ stick, it would be an unforgivably stupid route to take.
The Liberal Democrats will always provide a home for the Luciana Bergers of the world, but if the Phillip Lees want to seek refuge, then they need to check their baggage at the door. I am steadfast in my belief that the Liberal Democrats are the best home for LGBT+ people, but I am getting pretty tired of the party leadership making me defend that belief so often.
Chris Whiting is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisRWhiting