Jo Swinson is quite obviously the only party leader enjoying what’s going on right now. This is, of course, partly because what’s going on for her is that she is regularly welcoming MPs from other parties into the Liberal Democrats. As she said in her speech to the party’s conference this afternoon, ‘I can’t be the only one losing count of our many newly-elected representatives’.
There are plenty of questions about some of those new MPs. Are they really Lib Dems, or are they just seeking refuge in the party because they have nowhere else to go and need funding in order to survive the next general election? Has the party welcomed any old waif and stray, regardless of their views on matters such as gay marriage? But Swinson was trying to answer the biggest question of all about these new recruits: what is she planning to do with all this political momentum?
Her first answer was that she wanted the party to aim bigger than it has before. ‘There is no limit to my ambition for our party,’ she told the hall in Bournemouth, adding: ‘And today I am standing here as your candidate for prime minister.’
Previous Lib Dem leaders have pitched themselves as the moderating influence in British politics, a tug boat stopping the great tankers of the two main parties from steering too far away from the centre. When Nick Clegg was leader, the party used to play ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ by Stealers Wheel at its conferences as what organisers presumably thought was an amusing illustration of its position in politics. Swinson today turned away from being the party leader happy to be stuck in the middle, and claimed that she thought the country deserved ‘a better choice than an entitled Etonian or a 1970s socialist’.
Her critiques of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn were largely focused on how they were handling Brexit. She mocked Johnson for failing to turn up at his press conference yesterday with Xavier Bettel, and claimed that ‘for someone who proclaims to hate socialist dictators, he’s doing a pretty good impression of one’. When she reached Corbyn, she produced one of the most memorable lines of her speech: ‘Nigel Farage might be Brexit by name, but it is very clear that Jeremy Corbyn is Brexit by nature.’
Brexit is another reason Swinson appears to be enjoying herself. Her party has opted for a line which it can easily explain to voters: it wants to stop Britain leaving the European Union. This has, as expected, infuriated Leave voters, but it isn’t the anti-democratic move that some have argued: instead, it could only happen if the party won a majority in a general election, having campaigned very clearly on this basis.
The non-Brexit section of the speech was rather less confident. Swinson wants her party to change the way it measures growth, turning away from GDP and towards a focus on wellbeing. This sounded suspiciously like the kind of thing David Cameron went around proposing when he was Leader of the Opposition before the 2010 election, and didn’t quite know what he wanted to say to voters. The Tories even produced bizarre posters with blossom trees on them to underline their commitment to the radical policy of, er, general wellbeing, before finding that they had to grapple with an economic crisis and make cuts that left a lot of people rather cross.
Swinson then proceeded to hit what appear to be the main concerns raised in focus groups held by the party – knife crime, climate change and mental health. Her predecessors often used to lapse into hopey-changey platitudes at this point, leaning rather heavily on the assumption that people just thought the Lib Dems were a nicer party. There were policy proposals in these passages, but some of them were again an attempt to avoid spelling out hard truths. The Lib Dem leader wants ‘to engage everyone in the country by establishing a UK Citizens’ Climate Assembly to drive national debate about how exactly we will reach net-zero by 2045’. This is the sort of forum politicians like to organise when they don’t want to be the ones who have to tell the public that net-zero by 2045, for instance, will involve vast changes in everyone’s habits which a lot of voters will find very inconvenient.
Still, perhaps Swinson and her strategists felt they were already threatening to annoy a sufficient proportion of the electorate with their Brexit policy. The Lib Dems are, after all, seizing on the polarisation of politics by pitching just to Remain voters. They’ll need plenty of posters with pictures of blossom and platitudes about wellbeing if they’re to avoid being accused of making it harder to bring the country back together.