Jo Swinson had a terrible session on Question Time earlier in the election campaign, but tonight in her interview with Andrew Neil, she showed that it is possible for a leader who believes what they are saying to survive a very tough grilling with their dignity intact. She faced difficult questions on her party’s Brexit position, on her voting record in the Coalition government, and on what she would do if her party lost seats at this election, but managed to stick to her guns in a way that showed up Jeremy Corbyn for not doing so in his interview – and Boris Johnson for not having the guts to agree to an interview at all.
Labour has made much of the way the Lib Dems supported swingeing cuts to benefits when in government with the Conservatives, and Neil pointed out the way Jo Swinson had personally voted for the hated ‘bedroom tax’, and the (generally quite popular among voters) benefit cap. Instead of offering weaselly answers on these inconvenient truths, Swinson very bluntly agreed that she had indeed backed these policies, while also apologising for doing so: ‘I have previously said and am happy to say [Lib Dem support for these policies] was wrong’. When asked by Neil to apologise for the people hit by the benefit cuts, she said: ‘Yes, I am sorry that I did that. It was not the right policy and we should have stopped it.’
She also stuck to her party’s policy to revoke Article 50 if it won an election, and did reasonably well when repeatedly questioned on how strong her support for a People’s Vote actually was. Would the Lib Dems vote against a second EU referendum as part of a confidence and supply deal if that deal also included a second referendum on Scottish independence? She repeatedly dodged this question, merely saying ‘I will vote for a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal’ and also ‘I’m not going to support another referendum on independence’. She also tried not to say explicitly that she would immediately start campaigning for Britain to rejoin the EU if she didn’t manage to stop Brexit.
It is admirable that Swinson is sticking to her guns on the Article 50 pledge, as it’s too late to change course now, but of course the downside of this interview is that she has broadcast what has turned out to be rather unpopular policy to the viewing public one more time. The surprising failure of Swinson to excite voters, along with the apparent toxicity of this pledge, led to Neil asking her how well her party would have to do for her to say as leader. She did say ‘I’m confident we are going to win more seats,’ which is a significant downgrade from her ambition at the start of the campaign to be prime minister. Swinson is clearly already preparing her defence in the election post-mortem, arguing tonight that ‘I’ve just been elected as leader of the Lib Dems in July’, and that she would continue as leader regardless of the result. Others in her party might not be so confident of that assertion.