19/09/2017 07:01 BST

The Lib Dem Conference Is Trying To Be Optimistic About Brexit

'You can’t put a good liberal down. We pop up like moles.'

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Lib Dem activists gathered in Bournemouth for the party’s annual conference this week are trying to be optimistic about Brexit.

Not because they support it. They by and large believe it will be a disaster. But because they hope it could also be the salvation of their party.

Hannah, one of a clutch of Lib Dem members who could be spotted around the convention centre sporting a homemade blue and yellow EU flag beret, says “Brexit has unified everybody” in the party.

“Vaguely optimistic,” another young activist cautiously describes the mood. “Our great strength is optimism.” Adds newly elected Bath MP Wera Hobhouse. “So let’s just be optimistic.”

On the beach, a giant version of new leader Vince Cable’s ‘exit from Brexit’ slogan has been carved into the sand.

The party is committed to holding a referendum on the eventual deal with the EU - leaving open the possibility that the UK could remain a member.

The belief of many in Bournemouth is that as the negotiations with Brussles unfold, divisions within the Conservative Party and Labour will collapse the current political status quo.

Lib Dems hope by then the party will be in a position to take advantage – filling the large theoretical space between Theresa May’s right-wing Brexit Tory party and Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing Labour.

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Cable began the conference with the bold claim that it was “perfectly plausible” he could be the next prime minister.

Yet an ardently pro-Remain platform was put to the test at the snap general election under Cable’s predecessor Tim Farron. It did not produce the fast-track comeback many had predicted.

The party picked up just four seats – taking its Commons contingent to 12. And actually saw its national vote share go down.

The leader might be different, but the strategy for the next two years is the same.

So why should the parties fortunes improve?

Rather than publicly rake over the result, as would usually be the case for a political party at its post-election conference, the Lib Dems gathered on the south coast more or less have decided to act as if the election did not really count.

It was the right message, the argument goes, but it was the wrong time. The election came too early. Just wait and see.

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Lib Dems bristle at the suggestion that the party’s lackluster performance at the election means a new party of the liberal centre is needed. “We are already here,” is the response.

The brand is not forever tarnished they hope.

But the fallout from the coalition years stalk the corridors. Literally. The Lib Dem gathering may be the only party conference where there are more ex-MPs pottering about than sitting MPs.

The party’s conference is also emptier than during the Coalition years. What is decided here is of less consequence. Lobbyists are notable by their absence. There is less security. There are fewer journalist.

Cable himself sheepishly admitted to an evening gathering of Lib Dem local councilors he personally carried a lot of “baggage” from having been a senior coalition minister. He acknowledged many had not survived the anti-Coalition “tsunami” in 2015.

But the Lib Dems did see a surge in their membership under Farron after the referendum.

And Baroness Ludford, a Lib Dem peer and former MEP, says the influx of new members who joined to fight Brexit has injected “lots of energy lots of confidence” into a party that has “not had a great few years”.

“You can’t put a good liberal down. We pop up like moles,” she says. “I think our strength is we know who we are. The Labour Party might have won 40% in the election but basically they are quite unstable.

“We didn’t have a bloodbath in 2015. Of course we were down and discouraged and thought it was unfair, but we didn’t pack up and go home. We nursed our wounds a bit, we sprung up again. We just keep on keeping on.

She adds the party is not “fanciful” about how easy the raod back will be . “Ok, Vince said he could be prime minister. But there is no harm in talking up your own chances. We have been pushed down in the last few years, but absolutely not out.”

One former senior Lib Dem minister tells HuffPost UK it was good the party now had, in Cable, a “grown up leader” who was “respected”.

As for the election campaign just gone, the ex-minister adds: “We were always going to suffer the consequences of being a much smaller party after the 2015 election because for a lot of people like to vote for the party that they think is going to form the next government.

“We might have had some credibility when we had 50 or 60 MPs, but when you have eight suddenly people take you less seriously.

And Cable’s boast of moving in to Downing Street? “Does he expect to be going into No.10 in the next couple of years? I suspect not. But the point is, a third party, if you don’t believe in yourself its quite difficult to persuade anyone else to.

“Stranger things have happened in political systems abroad where parties and individuals have gone from nothing to suddenly being government.

“We should believe in the potential for us to make big breakthroughs rather than tiny incremental changes.

“There are lots of other people who would sell the Lib Dems down the river. We don’t need to take that position ourselves.”