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16 December 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 7:53am

Can a new MP really lead the Liberal Democrats?

By Patrick Maguire

Daisy Cooper, the new Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans, raised eyebrows yesterday by suggesting she could run to succeed Jo Swinson as leader. Speaking to LBC, Cooper declined to rule out a leadership bid. “I’ve got big ambitions for the country that I want to live in,” she said. “Let’s see where we are in a few weeks’ time.”

Having been an MP for four days, is Cooper on a hiding to nothing? Liberal Democrats at Westminster are unsurprised by her ambition, and the party has long been ambitious for her. Tim Farron gave her a starring role in his only general election campaign. And having run for the Lib Dem presidency in 2014, she is not unknown to the grassroots. 

Those taken by the idea of anointing a rookie parliamentarian as leader point the plans detractors to the likeliest date of the next general election: May 2024. Given that Boris Johnson will be in office for as long as he wants, Cooper’s fans believe the Liberal Democrats have time – and a clear incentive  to try something different. 

Those who disagree note with some alarm that to elect Cooper would be to hand control of a battered party’s strategy to an MP untested either at Westminster or in the country. With elections to local councils and the London mayoralty and assembly due in May, they fear focussing on the next general election risks jeopardising Liberal Democrat advances in the one arena in which they have been consistently successful of late. 

As one of the few remaining veterans of the Liberal Democrats’ Commons cohort puts it: “There are pros. And then there are the cons.”

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When Liberal Democrats debate the merits of a Cooper leadership – or lack thereof they are really debating the party’s future in microcosm. With Brexit looming, the fundamental question Swinson’s successors must face is how the Liberal Democrats respond to the new political reality. What policy objectives do they now prioritise? How do they communicate them? Which voters do they pursue? And how will they judge whether they have been successful in doing so?

Cooper and those MPs who Liberal Democrats at Westminster believe will also run for the leadership – Ed Davey, Layla Moran and Christine Jardine – will have different answers to those existential questions. The fear among survivors is that members will once again pick the wrong set. 

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