Will Jo Swinson manage to muscle in on the first head-to-head debate of the general election campaign, slated to be televised by ITV on 19 November? The Liberal Democrats are determined to make sure she does. This evening Mike Dixon, the party’s chief executive, and Chuka Umunna, who sits on its election committee, met with senior executives at the network to make the case for their leader’s inclusion this evening.
In public, Swinson and the Liberal Democrats have made much of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to a three-way debate. She and her MPs have accused the prime minister and leader of the opposition of being sexists, cowards, or both. They hope their agitation will either embarrass either or both of the main party leaders into budging, or, failing that, at least partially make up for some of the publicity they will miss out on due to the omission.
In private, they have taken an uncompromising stance in talks with ITV and ITN. This evening Dixon and Umunna told executives that the party believed Swinson’s exclusion was unlawful – given the obligation on networks to provide fair and equal coverage – and that legal action would follow if they did not budge.
There is little sign of ITV doing so, especially now Sky has offered to host a three-way debate. But, for the Liberal Democrats, pursuing the case to the courts is a no-brainer in two crucial respects. Like Nick Clegg in 2010, Swinson lacks widespread name recognition and needs media exposure as the leader of a major party, rather than an also-ran, if she is to ensure her momentum at a local and European level translates into more seats at Westminster. Her allies also believe that a debate in which she outflanked Corbyn on Europe would help limit Labour’s squeeze on the Liberal Democrat share of the vote.
But even if Swinson fails to force her way into the debates via the courts, any legal action will generate headlines about the big two running scared. Her gamble is that voters see it in those terms, rather than as an affirmation of her irrelevance.