When I was fresh out of university, I applied for a job as a parliamentary aide to Jo Swinson. The MP for East Dunbartonshire was full of promise and more to my political tastes then than the clunky managerialism of new PM Gordon Brown. She rejected me. If nothing else, this shows Swinson has sound judgement. After all, I would have made a terrible Lib Dem staffer. I was – and remain – in favour of the Iraq War, the war on terror, tuition fees, first past the post, nuclear power and erecting a statue of Tony Blair in every parish in the land.
For many years, that was the Lib Dems’ strong suit: what they were for was so vague almost anyone could support them. The Coalition shattered all that when the party found itself, unexpectedly, in government and, terrifyingly, held to its most recent manifesto pledges. Now that she is party leader, Swinson will have to decide whether to revert to the old strategy or plant herself on firm ground and convince the electorate that the time has come to abandon the creaking Tory-Labour duopoly.
Brexit identification today is stronger than party identification, which hands Swinson an opportunity to assemble a new party around her from disaffected Remainers. Lord Ashcroft’s polling indicates three clear components to the Lib Dems’ European election vote: 2017 Labour voters (37 per cent), Lib Dem voters (31 per cent), and Tories (24 per cent).
This appears to be no mere flirtation: 61 per cent of Tory switchers and 51 per cent of Labour switchers say they will stick with the Lib Dems at the next general election. All told, the 2016 Remain vote went just over one-third for the Lib Dems, one-fifth a piece for Labour and the Greens and one in ten for the Tories.
The picture that emerges is of a centre-left Remain electorate wandering in search of a centre-left Remain party. The Lib Dems seem ideally placed to be that party, reflecting the values in particular of liberal professionals and young graduates. On an atavistic level, they can offer the citizens of nowhere a chance to exact revenge on the provincials of Brexitland.
Swinson could position the Lib Dems as a Remain Plus party: the European question at the heart of its identity. But the party could be just as focused on inequality, redistribution, the NHS and housing. In essence, Swinson could turn the Lib Dems into what the Labour party would look like now if Yvette Cooper had won the leadership.
There is scope to take a chunk of liberal Remainers out of the Tory vote too. So while the centre-left is Swinson’s obvious demographic, a moderate, non-sectarian tone would likely yield better results than the standard line among some Remainers that Brexiteers are all thick racists.
Much of that tone will be set by how Swinson decides to talk about Brexit. She has already had an awkward run-in with the question on the BBC, in which she admitted she still wouldn’t vote for Leave in parliament if a second referendum returned the same result.
Steadfast Remainism is what her target voters want to hear right now, when the threat of no deal is being bandied about. But after we leave the EU — and assuming imminent catastrophe is avoided — she will have to nudge her position towards lambasting the delivery of the policy rather than the policy itself. Remain is a spectrum; not everyone is AC Grayling.
The big question: could she end up prime minister? As things stand, it’s doubtful. The electoral system is a chiel that winna ding and it will limit Swinson’s ability to translate even a sizeable spike in vote share into parliamentary seats. That doesn’t mean she can’t do serious damage to her rivals. There is a reason Labour and the SNP have hammered her so early and so viciously. To Labour, she represents the threat of an alternative centre-left party, one that more closely reflects the views of Labour members than it does the views of David Irving.
To the Scottish Nationalists, she risks spoiling so much of their fun. Finally there’s a Scot back in charge of the Lib Dems and one who is on the majority side of the two great constitutional questions of the day: with the 55 per cent against independence and the 62 per cent against Brexit. Assaults on her record in the Coalition are legitimate but if she is to be painted as callous, what are we to say of John McDonnell for committing to carry through the vast bulk of George Osborne’s welfare cuts and Nicola Sturgeon for the absolute shoeing her government has given Scotland’s poorest children?
I suspect Katy Balls is right and that, rather than becoming PM, Swinson could more realistically find herself kingmaker in a future parliament. Of course, there is no reason to concede such at this stage; focus instead on building up the Lib Dems into the Remainers party. Mind you, what a choice Swinson would face if she ever did hold the balance of power: prop up Boris and Brexit, in effect a Coalition 2.0, or put Jeremy Corbyn in power, and risk sharing the blame for every hapless episode of ignorance, dysfunction and anti-Semitism.
British politics feels on the cusp of something and if that something is to be truly transformative, it will have to result in more than just the same Labour-Tory dominance with a few extra Lib Dems.
Swinson might be the woman who achieves the breakthrough and leads us towards competitive three-party politics, but first she will have to decide what that third party stands for.