Jo Swinson has been elected leader of the Liberal Democrats by a landslide, beating Ed Davey by a crushing margin of 63 per cent to 37 per cent. The former business minister is the party’s first woman leader, having served as Vince Cable’s deputy since 2017.
Swinson inherits a party in much better shape than either she or Davey, neither of whom ran to succeed Tim Farron two years ago for family reasons, had anticipated at any point in Cable’s leadership. The Lib Dems are no longer flatlining in single digits in the polls, but instead vying for first place as one of four parties hovering around the 20 per cent mark – to say nothing of its 16 MEPs and new MP in Chuka Umunna.
Few anticipated such a drastic reversal in fortunes: Cable’s 2018 conference speech, in which he essentially called for centrist activists to stage a reverse takeover of the party and floated an ultimately scotched plan for his successor to be elected from outside of parliament, seems a long time ago. Both Swinson and Davey had expected to be making a pitch to lift their party out of the doldrums and ensure it saw off the rise of Change UK. Instead, the primary question they had to grapple with in a campaign almost entirely devoid of acrimony or meaningful disagreement on policy was how the party might continue its remarkable rise in the polls, on local councils and in the Commons.
The scale of Swinson’s victory serves to vindicate the two central arguments of her campaign: that her media profile meant she was best placed to not just consolidate the party’s polling position but push it beyond 20 per cent, and that doing it meant the Lib Dems must diversify. It also serves to illustrate how the party’s grassroots have changed since the EU referendum and election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. As recently as this morning, veterans of previous campaigns were confidently predicting a much closer race than anyone had anticipated and there had been whispers of a shock win for Davey. But those members who had signed up since the 2015 leadership election were an unknown and untested quantity, and that they have broken for Swinson is telling.
Where next? Swinson’s victory speech offered several clues as to the broad outlines of her strategy to push the Lib Dems past 20 per cent and – in her own words – into government. Most of her ire was focussed not on Jeremy Corbyn – who she predictably attacked for lacking a clear position on Brexit, and ruled out working with – but on Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. That reflects the fact that the party’s path to serious numbers in the Commons runs through Tory-held seats but also something deeper. She pitched herself not solely as the leader of the Liberal Democrats but as a broader liberal movement, and to that effect invited disenchanted MPs from both major parties to join. Much was made, of course, of her unequivocal opposition to Brexit, but also of the party’s credentials on the environment – a policy area her colleagues believe could prove just as lucrative.
All of these choices, and the message they are intended to send, invite a comparison that Swinson would undoubtedly reject. Both she and Jeremy Corbyn are taking the same strategic gamble on a Johnson premiership. Each leader has correctly intuited that an administration bent on a no-deal Brexit will prove so repellent to social liberals that it drives them to the clearest possible alternative at the ballot box. Optimists in Labour believe first-past-the-post will encourage those voters to conclude they are that alternative. Swinson’s pitch is to replace them, which, given the vagaries of that same electoral system and the polling picture, isn’t as implausible as it might have once sounded. “I stand before you today not as the leader of the Lib Dems, but as a candidate for prime minister,” she said. For the first time since David Steel uttered similar words, that is more an expression of sincere intent than dutiful aspiration.