What's the Liberal Democrat leadership race about? Jo Swinson has a new answer

The central problem both candidates have is that they expected to be fighting over a wreck, not bidding to take control of a property in good repair. 

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Jo Swinson and Ed Davey, her rival for the Liberal Democrat leadership, have several things in common, but the most important, for the purposes of the contest, is that they both opted not to run last time for family reasons, and have had two years to think about the direction of the party under Vince Cable and how they might do it better. Neither really expected to be fighting an election in which they were scrapping over who was best-placed to take charge of a party on the up.

That was one reason – added to the first-night nerves and the stiflingly hot and crowded assembly hall it took place in – that the first hustings match-up between the two was so inconclusive. Having spent so long privately preparing a case to be given control of a fixer-upper, they both struggled to set out why they should be given the keys to a property in good condition.

The subtext of Davey’s original pitch was essentially “We need a Paddy Ashdown to get out of this mess. I’m your Ashdown”, while the subtext of the Swinson offer was basically “things are bad. We need someone who can expand and build on a wider movement”. But the Liberal Democrats don’t look like they need an Ashdown, or to be put at the head of a movement they already look to be leading.

In an odd way, that makes Swinson and Davey the only Liberal Democrat MPs with reason to feel frustrated at the party’s continuing buoyancy in the polls. Now Swinson has a new message: Vince Cable has taken the party up from the doldrums of eight per cent. Now we need someone to exceed 20 per cent.

It might fix the problem of what the leadership election is about. But the strategic gamble Swinson is making is that she is now very much the candidate saying her party should move out of its comfort zone: she’s challenging its (astonishingly poor) record on candidate diversity and running as the candidate of change with a party that is polling in the 18-25 per cent range. That might be too much change for the party’s grassroots.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.