An old joke among political journalists is that you know a writer has run out of topics when they start producing columns either on their children or the Liberal Democrats. With so many other things going on, perhaps this is why Westminster has been oddly indifferent to the leadership contest taking place between Jo Swinson and Ed Davey over the past couple of months. We should have been paying more attention, as the winner may well have an important role to play in the political turmoil over the next few months.
Last night, the BBC held its hustings with the two candidates, and I was one of the journalists invited to ask questions. It’s had to put a cigarette paper between Swinson and Davey on their attitude towards Brexit, but when it comes to what they might do to stop Britain leaving the European Union, things get more interesting. The pair do not agree on the necessary compromises in order to reach that conclusion.
Both categorically ruled out a formal coalition with either of the main parties, but they disagreed on looser arrangements. Ed Davey told us that he would be prepared to instruct his party to support a Queen’s Speech written by Jeremy Corbyn if it included legislation for a second referendum:
‘Our mandate would be to stop Brexit… Let’s imagine there’s two parties who could put a Queen’s Speech together. If that Queen’s Speech doesn’t contain a bill for a People’s Vote, we will vote it down.’
He insisted that this would not constitute a supply-and-confidence arrangement, as the Lib Dems would only offer their support for the Queen’s Speech, and would likely vote down a Labour Budget. In practice, though, this would be difficult, as the Labour party would most likely insist on the Lib Dems offering a formal confidence-and-supply agreement in return for their referendum demand – and voting down the Budget would bring down the government, which could scotch the second referendum before it had even passed through parliament.
Swinson wasn’t very keen to answer the question directly. She repeatedly made comments about it being impossible to trust Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit, and was more interested in forming a coalition of MPs from across parties. She told the programme that ‘I wouldn’t have confidence that every single Labour MP would want to put Jeremy Cornyn in Downing Street’ and instead ‘there may well be a majority of MPs from different parties for a People’s Vote’.
Swinson’s scenario relies on MPs doing something they have been almost conditioned not to even contemplate: abandoning their respective parties just after an election to form a coalition with members from other parties. But it’s not unimaginable, given how messy British politics is at the moment. Which is why it’s worth paying close attention to the result of this contest, which is announced on Monday.