How will the Liberal Democrats change under Jo Swinson’s watch? That’s the question that both Vince Cable’s successor and her defeated rival, Ed Davey, had expected to have to answer over the course of the party’s leadership race.
In the event, however, the contest was less about reviving the party’s fortunes than ensuring they continued on an upward trajectory, and neither candidate’s pitch involved anything even vaguely resembling the sort of radical changes Cable suggested as a final throw of the dice in 2018, such as allowing non-members to vote for and even stand for the party leadership.
But Swinson and Davey did agree on a small but significant change to how the party operates internally. At a private hustings for staff at the Liberal Democrats’ Great George Street headquarters last month, both candidates pledged to move their offices from the Commons, where Cable based himself as leader, to party HQ.
A persistent grumble from some Lib Dems during Cable’s leadership – which, thanks to his electoral success, will now be remembered much more fondly than it otherwise might have – was that his decision to work from his parliamentary office left him semi-detached from the party in the country and made the process of taking big strategic decisions more difficult. “Vince went out on a real high with great local and European election results, which is a credit to his big priority as leader: getting out to help our candidates,” said one staffer. “But I do think it would have helped to have his office based in HQ.”
Cable’s approach to the logistics of running his party was a departure from that taken by Tim Farron, whose first act as leader was to set up shop in Lib Dem HQ. Upon his election in 2015, he told party staff: “You’re all now working for the leader’s office.” It was a popular move but it was also born of grim necessity: having lost 47 seats in that May’s general election, the Lib Dems were without the millions of pounds in Short money and suite of offices that come with third party status in the Commons. Despite its humiliation at the ballot box, however, the party did still have a well-resourced HQ at his disposal, and Farron believes that basing its operations there rather than in a Parliament where it had limited speaking rights and next to no leverage was a crucial step in its process of adjustment to a challenging new existence.
Many staff and MPs agree with him, and Swinson is currently in the process of making the same move. “The point,” says one source familiar with her thinking, “is that she doesn’t just want to be a Westminster politician in Parliament, but that she would rather be on the frontline leading our campaigns.” It will also enable Swinson to impose her will on the political and campaigning apparatus of a party whose structures are otherwise hyper-democratic. Moving to ensure the Lib Dem machine thinks and acts as one ahead of an early election may be the most consequential decision she makes.