It was not supposed to be like this. The Liberal Democrats entered this general election campaign with high hopes. Fiercely opposed to Brexit, they had outperformed every other party in last May’s local elections, winning more than 700 seats and 18 councils. Three weeks later they beat the Conservatives and Labour in the European Parliament elections, gaining 15 new MEPs and nearly 20 per cent of the vote. Party membership has since soared to a record 127,000. Labour and Tory defectors have boosted the parliamentary party to 20. Money has poured in – more than £5m in cash donations in the first nine months of 2019 – enabling the Lib Dems to mount their most ambitious campaign and to outspend all their rivals on social media.
On top of all that, the party elected Jo Swinson as its leader in July. The young, progressive, state-educated, marathon-running mother of two small children would be pitted against two much older, privately educated males – Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, both deeply polarising figures leading fractured parties, one strongly in favour and the other equivocal on Brexit. “There was a belief that at long last the Lib Dems had got what they wanted – a young woman as leader. They thought that was a massive prize, and people were bound to love her,” said a party insider.
In the circumstances it was perhaps understandable, if not prudent, for Swinson to declare in her address to September’s party conference: “Today I am standing here as your candidate for prime minister.” Or for her picture to appear on millions of election leaflets beside the words “Britain’s next prime minister”. Or for her to appear in a boxing ring at the start of the campaign wearing big yellow gloves and a T-shirt proclaiming “Girly Swot” in a direct challenge to Downing Street’s incumbent.
How different things look now. As polling day looms there is no sign of a Lib Dem breakthrough. Support for the party has slumped from 23 per cent in September to barely 14 per cent. YouGov’s eagerly awaited MRP poll suggested the Lib Dems would win a mere 13 seats – seven fewer than their present total and just one more than in 2017, when the hapless Tim Farron led the party.
Swinson appears not to be the electoral asset her party had hoped for. Her personal approval ratings have slumped from minus 8 to minus 24 per cent, though she remains popular among Remainers. She is routinely derided by the right-wing press. But if she is dismayed she does not show it. She is resolutely upbeat as we talk on her campaign bus (a diesel affair that once belonged to Crystal Palace football club; the electric one she uses to tout her green credentials lacks the range to reach our destination, Cardiff).
She looks beyond the headlines of that YouGov poll which predicted a Conservative majority of 68. What it also showed, she says, is that Corbyn has no chance of forming a majority government, and that the Lib Dems are second in 134 constituencies – 96 of them presently held by the Conservatives. That allows millions of centrist voters, appalled by the prospect of a hard-line Johnson government and catastrophic Brexit, to vote tactically, she argues. They can back the Lib Dems in the hope of securing another hung parliament and a second referendum without fear of letting an extreme left-winger into No 10.
Swinson, who has taken some big risks in the first four months of her leadership and badly needs a last-minute surge of support to vindicate them, also claims the poll failed to reflect the Lib Dems’ strength in targeted seats. These include the former Tory strongholds of Kensington, Finchley and Golders Green, and Esher and Walton – where the Foreign Secretary and hard Brexiteer Dominic Raab is fighting to hold on.
“There’s everything to play for,” Swinson says. “It’s the Liberal Democrats who can stop Johnson gaining a majority by us winning seats from the Conservatives. That’s what I am focused on over the final few days of the campaign.”
Swinson is shorter than she appears on television and lacks the sort of charisma that fills a room. But she is intelligent, articulate, good with people, comfortable in her own skin and refreshingly free of airs and graces. She is also tough, determined and demanding – qualities that have brought her a very long way very fast.
She was born in Glasgow in 1980, the daughter of an urban planner and a primary school teacher. At Douglas Academy, a highly rated comprehensive in the middle-class commuter town of Milngavie, she became a keen debater and campaigned for girls to be allowed to wear trousers. Her father encouraged her and her sister, Nicola, now a successful forensic psychiatrist, to aim high. Growing up while Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street “it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t be prime minister”, Swinson told me.
Anita Roddick, the Body Shop founder, was another source of inspiration “because she challenged the system and said business can be a force for good… She’s one of the reasons I studied business management at university because I saw that as a route to change the world.”
Swinson duly earned a first-class degree from the London School of Economics (LSE), where she also smoked her “fair share of cannabis” and survived an attempted sexual assault by a fellow student: “If you make me, that’s rape,” she warned him.
She joined the Liberal Democrats at the fresher’s fair. At the end of her first year, having been dumped by a boyfriend, she attended a residential weekend in the Peak District to learn about campaigning. She caught the bug, went to that autumn’s party conference, won election to the national committee of the Lib Dems’ youth organisation, and began a rapid ascent.
From the LSE she went to work as a marketing and public relations manager for the commercial radio station Viking FM in Hull. Aged 21, she stood against the local MP, John Prescott, in the 2001 general election, narrowly beating the Conservative candidate into second place.
Two years later she fought Strathkelvin and Bearsden for a seat in the Scottish parliament, finishing third. In 2005, aged 25, she was elected to the House of Commons from East Dunbartonshire, her home constituency, with a 4,061 majority over Labour.
As Westminster’s youngest MP, she was inevitably dubbed “the Baby of the House” – which she hated. When she asked a question about the minimum wage for 16- and 17-year-olds, the minister at the despatch box asked if she was one of them. She found the Commons “shouty and brutish and braying”, but worked hard, prepared well and stood her ground. She also challenged Lord Rennard, the Lib Dems’ powerful chief executive from 2003 to 2009, over allegations of sexual harassment (allegations that he denied).
In 2012, two years after Nick Clegg took the Lib Dems into coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservatives, she was appointed a junior minister in the business department. She remembers one official visitor mistaking her for a secretary.
A staunch feminist, she promoted gender pay gap reporting, shared parental leave and the right to request flexible working – issues close to her heart. In 2011 she had married Duncan Hames, the Lib Dem MP for Chippenham, Wiltshire. Their first son, Andrew, was born in 2013 and she breast-fed him in her ministerial office. Their second, Gabriel, was born last year and Swinson became the first MP to take a baby into the Commons chamber.
Socially progressive but fiscally more conservative, she also supported the Cameron government’s austerity programme and voted for deeply unpopular measures including tuition fee increases, the bedroom tax and cuts in social welfare budgets. “We didn’t get everything right,” she says now, but contends that the Lib Dems managed to block some even harsher Conservative proposals and helped restore economic stability after the financial crash.
The Lib Dems paid a heavy price for supporting the Tories. They were clobbered in the 2015 general election. Swinson and Hames both lost their seats on what she called a “bruising” night. Out of office, she wrote a book, Equal Power: Gender Equality and How to Achieve It.
Then, in 2017, Theresa May called a snap election. Swinson recaptured her seat from the SNP while Hames curtailed his political career and became director of policy at the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International UK. With a young family, the constant shuttling between London, Wiltshire and Glasgow was no longer feasible.
Swinson was touted as a potential successor to Tim Farron when he stood down as party leader after the 2017 election, but she chose not to stand. Politics was a marathon not a sprint, she explained in language she understood well. She ran marathons in 2007, 2011 and 2017, with an impressive best time of three hours 57 minutes.
She instead became Vince Cable’s deputy leader, and when Cable stood down last summer she entered the race. She emphatically beat Ed Davey, the former energy secretary, by 47,997 votes to 28,021, to become the first leader of a major British political party born in the 1980s. Three months later she was leading the Lib Dems into a general election – a huge challenge for a relatively young and inexperienced politician.
Revoke and Remain: Jo Swinson campaigns in Golders Green, north London, 6 November. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Swinson seems to cope well with the pressure of the campaign, though she describes its tone as “negative and depressing” and has received plenty of abuse, including a death threat against her children.
She manages to get home to her young family many nights, and to run two or three times a week. “We’re doing what we normally do,” she says. “We’re juggling being two parents, both with busy and demanding jobs and two small kids, and somehow it all works and you don’t suddenly have a child waiting to be picked up from nursery and nobody to collect them.” But her political challenges have proved more daunting.
Some have been beyond her control. Early on Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party agreed not to stand against Tory candidates in more than 300 seats, uniting the Leave vote.
“That was clearly a massive boost for Boris Johnson,” she says.
She was barred from the first television debate between Johnson and Corbyn, depriving her of the chance to introduce herself to the public and, potentially, enjoy a “Nick Clegg moment” (in 2010 the fresh-faced Lib Dem leader thumped Cameron and Gordon Brown in the first debate). “It was a total stitch-up,” she says.
And the polarisation of the two main parties, far from helping the Lib Dems, appears to have hurt the centrist party. Moderate, Remain-supporting Tories hesitate to vote Lib Dem lest they facilitate a Corbyn victory, while Corbyn-loathing New Labourites fear that voting Lib Dem would assist Johnson.
When Swinson appeared before an audience comprised largely of Labour and Tory supporters on a BBC Question Time “Leaders Special” she was savaged by both sides. “They were not the most supportive audience I’ve ever taken questions from,” she notes wryly.
But Swinson readily concedes that she has made mistakes. She won’t identify them, but her critics do.
One was her decision to present herself as a potential prime minister, a move that now looks absurdly hubristic. “At the beginning of the campaign we had a four-party fight going on and a first-past-the-post volatile election system with four parties in contention. Anything was possible… I’m not going to apologise for being ambitious for wanting to change our country,” she says. To those who accuse her of running an unduly presidential campaign she retorts: “It’s not unusual to have the party leader leading the campaign.”
Another contentious move was accepting Johnson’s demand for a general election to break the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit. The decision was motivated, Swinson’s critics say, by a misplaced confidence in the appeal of her party’s Remain stance and a fear that Johnson’s Brexit deal would destroy its strongest electoral card.
Again, Swinson is unapologetic. Brussels had extended Britain’s EU membership to 31 January. The Lib Dems’ best efforts to secure a people’s vote had failed due to Labour’s lack of support. “There was no guarantee of any further extensions, so if it wasn’t going to be a people’s vote it had to be a general election.”
Most controversial was her embrace of a policy of revoking Article 50 outright if the party won the election – a major shift intended to preserve the Lib Dems as champions of Remain while Labour inched towards backing a second referendum.
The policy had a certain logic: to revoke Brexit the Lib Dems would have to win 326 seats – an indisputably overwhelming mandate. But it appears to have backfired, with many moderate Remainers complaining that revoking Article 50 without a second referendum would be undemocratic, divisive and extreme.
Vince Cable called the policy an unhelpful distraction. Another senior party member said it was “a grave strategic mistake and wrong in principle”. He told me Swinson was turning the Libs Dems into “the party of the metropolitan elite” and ignoring its more traditional, lower-income members outside London and its environs.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence that it puts off Remainers,” Swinson counters. “It gives us clarity on the issue… Most people hear little bits of news on the radio as they’re driving the kids to school or going home from work and we need to make sure the thing they know about the Lib Dems is they want to stop Brexit.”
Swinson has also refused to give David Gauke, the former Conservative rebel standing as an independent in South West Hertfordshire, a free run, or Labour’s candidate a clear path to fight against Boris Johnson in his precarious Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency. She denies putting tribal politics ahead of the national interest, arguing that the Lib Dems have joined an unprecedented electoral pact with the Greens and Plaid Cymru in 60 seats and that voters must have the chance to vote for unequivocally Remain candidates.
She swats away criticism of her leadership style – media commentators call her strident, shrill and hectoring, and compare her to a head girl or Miss Jean Brodie. It is “sexist, yes. Hurtful, no,” she says. “I have literally written a book about gender equality, so I’m not about to be surprised that as a woman in a high-profile position in public life I get criticised in a very gendered way.”
But for all her defiance Jo Swinson has changed course during the campaign. She no longer mentions becoming prime minister. She now talks only of denying Johnson a majority in the hope that another hung parliament would back a second referendum, and has intensified her attacks on Johnson to coax moderate Tories away from him.
She cannot think of any prime minister who was less fit to hold the office, she tells me. He lies. He cares only about himself. “Boris Johnson is what you would get if you sent Trump to Eton,” she quips.
She hesitates to add to the campaign’s ugliness by going for the jugular, however. She declines to ask how many children the Tory leader has, or to invoke a record of serial adultery which shows that even Johnson’s wives could not trust him. All she will say is that “he doesn’t have a record of treating women with respect, whether it’s comments he’s written in his newspaper columns, or [journalist] Charlotte Edwardes’s experience of being groped by him or the fact he’s prepared to lie to the Queen”.
In Cardiff Swinson is due to meet Jews angered by Labour’s anti-Semitism and Muslims angered by Conservative Islamophobia. But it is a Friday, and we reach the synagogue an hour late, leaving Swinson with barely 15 minutes before the Jewish Sabbath starts at sunset.
Swinson has likewise left her change of electoral strategy very late indeed – probably too late. But unless she loses her own seat on 12 December (the SNP is running her close) the Lib Dems are unlikely to jettison their leader so soon after electing her. She will certainly face a tough post-mortem, but she seems to be thinking and planning long-term. She envisages a post-Brexit realignment of British politics, with the new dividing line being open or closed, liberal or authoritarian, drawbridge up or drawbridge down. “There are people who think there’ll be a return to politics as normal,” Jo Swinson says, “but I think they’re living in cloud cuckoo land.”
Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer