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What now for the humbled Liberal Democrats?

Exclusive: Five Liberal Democrat MPs are considering standing for the leadership as intense divisions emerge over Jo Swinson’s leadership and the party’s future direction.

When it became clear to Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson that she had lost her seat at last month’s general election, she didn’t cry. At least not in front of anyone. Instead, the first question she asked was whether her mum and sister were okay. She hugged her staff, and was outwardly upbeat through the night and into the following day’s speech, in which she confirmed she would resign as the party’s leader. Only days later did the news sink in. “I’m still not over it to be honest,” reflects one of those who was with Swinson in East Dunbartonshire that evening. 

The party speaks about its now-former leader in reverent tones. “No, I haven’t seen her. Just texted,” one MP says with a sad smile. Another rules out running for the top post because, they say, they could never match Swinson’s commitment and energy to the rather unforgiving job of Liberal Democrat leader. “She’s the most resilient person I’ve ever met,” says one Liberal Democrat who worked closely with Swinson. Party figures like to joke that “you could punch her in the face” and she would merely take a breather and keep going.

The bruising, public and largely unexpected loss of their leader’s seat was the definitive blow on an election night that profoundly disappointed the Liberal Democrats. After finishing second in last May’s European elections, the party enjoyed a whirlwind period with eight defections from the Conservatives and Labour, and a by-election victory in Brecon and Radnorshire, taking their total number of MPs to 21. Yet they ended 2018 with fewer MPs (11) than after the disappointing 2017 general election (12). Now, despite the warmth, kindness and sadness with which they discuss Swinson as a person, many of the Liberal Democrats’ current MPs are privately scathing about the decisions taken under her leadership, as they look back on the campaign, reflect on what went wrong and debate where the party should go next.

As any Liberal Democrat will tell you, some of their electoral fate is invariably beyond the party’s control. As the third party in a first-past-the-post electoral system, a squeeze on their vote share in a general election is largely inevitable, especially in a contest where the two main party leaders are highly unpopular. In an unpopularity contest, voters ultimately act to prevent their least-desired outcome: in this case, voting Conservative to stop Jeremy Corbyn, or voting Labour to stop Boris Johnson, with little thought given to the Lib Dems. Party figures acknowledge that the success of the Liberal Democrats is closely correlated with the popularity of the Labour leader: an unpopular Corbyn ultimately damaged the Lib Dems too. 

There is frustration that Swinson lost crucial airtime through her exclusion from the televised leaders’ debates between Johnson and Corbyn, and a sense of exhaustion at the uphill struggle that the third party faces in trying to attract media coverage. (The overshadowing of their universal childcare policy by Labour’s less generous proposal is a particular sore spot.) 

But beyond these external factors, there is much that Liberal Democrat MPs complain of from their own campaign, which several privately condemn as “hubristic”, characterised as it was by multiple “stupid” decisions and a culture in which bad decisions went unchallenged. 

This began with the decision last October to vote for a general election at all. Johnson craved an election having long prepared the ground for a “people versus parliament” contest, while the SNP were keen to hold an election before any potential ramifications from the trial of former leader Alex Salmond over sexual assault allegations, which begins in March. If the Lib Dems had “stayed in the trenches”, as one MP puts it, Johnson could have been forced into a compromise position of holding a second referendum by January. Instead, in the words of a Lib Dem MP: “we believed our own hype”, and the party made its first strategic error of the campaign. (Though it is difficult to know if “staying in the trenches” would have worked until January: with the combined votes of the Conservatives and SNP - 323 - a majority could have been won for a short bill setting aside the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and allowing for a general election on a specific date.) 

But the greatest regret among Lib Dem MPs is over the party’s pledge to revoke Article 50: how the decision was arrived at, and how it was later communicated. The Liberal Democrat leadership had long been aware of a push among the grassroots to back this proposal, which would have automatically cancelled Brexit, as party policy. (Under Liberal Democrat rules, any member can propose a motion for debate at conference and every member, including MPs and MEPs, has one vote. If a motion passes, it becomes party policy.) When it became clear that members would table a pro-Revoke motion at the party’s autumn conference, which was likely to be selected for debate, the leadership decided to own the move and propose the policy themselves, rather than being forced to amend a policy from the membership. The measure turned into a vote of confidence in Swinson’s leadership, and it was overwhelmingly approved.    

On the day the motion was introduced at the conference, one Liberal Democrat MP went for a long walk along the beach in Bournemouth to escape the “madness” being witnessed in the hall. There is disagreement among MPs about whether they were consulted over the policy in advance: some insist there was a meeting and a genuine effort to make a collective decision. Others argue that the defectors from rival parties - the “new sexy people”, as one MP describes them - had Swinson’s ear, while the party’s pre-existing MPs were sidelined. 

Specifically, couched in polite, very Lib Dem caveats about how talented this defector is, there is annoyance in the parliamentary party about how much sway Chuka Umunna had over the decision-making process. After his experience of leaving Labour to form The Independent Group/Change UK in February 2019, Umunna had a keen sense of the need to take bold positions in order to be noticed. This, his former colleagues suggest, was a critical factor in the adoption of the Revoke policy, and its subsequent communication, as well as in other decisions which they deem to have backfired. Whether they were in the room or not for the initial decision on the Revoke position, some of the party’s MPs complain of a culture that discouraged criticism of policy. Umunna, the “shiny new best friend”, as one MP describes him, was listened to at the expense of other Liberal Democrat voices. 

This was also true in the case of the decision to make “Jo Swinson: the UK’s next Prime Minister” a defining message in the campaign. Lib Dem MPs are unaware of how this crucial strategic decision was taken; certainly, they say, they had no input. 

As one Lib Dem MP recalls hearing the line for the first time, they smack their head and roll their eyes. It looked “hubristic” and “undemocratic” when combined with the Revoke policy, they argue. (This has become a fault line in internal party debate: other Liberal Democrats are keen to point out that the “next Prime Minister” line has been used by successive Liberal Democrat leaders and in Ed Davey’s leadership campaign with no negative response.)

There are other rather subjective criticisms of Swinson’s leadership: that she placed too much emphasis on quantitative rather than qualitative data (an excess of polling, with little use of focus groups or doorstep campaigning to test messages); that she wasn’t surrounded by people with experience of on-the-ground campaigning; and that the party failed to sufficiently change its strategy and messaging when the inevitable polling squeeze began. There is also a consensus that Swinson proved unpopular with voters in a way that was entirely unexpected: no polling or focus groups had suggested this would be an issue. Sexism played a role, most agree, but it is harder to work out how to prepare for, or resolve, a problem such as this in future elections. 

On Saturday 18 January, a chair for the review into the Liberal Democrats’ general election performance will be appointed, a timetable for a leadership contest will be set out, and a post-mortem will be underway. Some of the party’s MPs are entirely withholding judgement on their election performance until they see the report. Others, from staff in Lib Dem HQ, to grassroots campaigners, to MPs who felt shut out of the process, will be hoping to see their own reflections vindicated. 

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Perhaps more notable than the regrets over the election campaign, however, are the divisions over the Liberal Democrats’ future. Even before a leadership contest timetable has been announced, the candidates and the battle lines are clear to anyone who speaks to the parliamentary party.

Out of a field of 11, no fewer than five Lib Dem MPs are seriously considering standing for the leadership: former climate change and energy secretary Ed Davey, the current acting leader; Layla Moran, the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon since 2017; Christine Jardine, MP for Edinburgh West since 2017; Daisy Cooper, the newly-elected MP for St Albans; and, unexpectedly, Wera Hobhouse, the MP for Bath since 2017. 

It will be a crowded field should all join the contest, and the divisions that will define it are already visible beneath the surface. Davey, 54, who was defeated by Swinson in the last leadership contest only six months ago, is widely expected to stand again, and his colleagues are keen to avoid a “coronation”. However warmly he is spoken of by fellow MPs, Davey’s view that the party’s record in the 2010-15 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition must be owned and defended - if the party is to win back power - is one that will be fiercely contested. 

Many of Davey’s colleagues privately argue that the “yellow Tory” factor was a hugely underestimated impediment at the general election. To overcome this obstacle, they say, the party needs a post-coalition leader: that could be any of the four women considering standing, who did not become Lib Dem MPs until 2017 or later. If Cooper, the newest MP, stands, the debate over the party’s past could be particularly vociferous. 

Though the 40-year-old St Albans MP is little-known publicly, she is renowned within Lib Dem circles as a former candidate for the party’s presidency and as the person hired to run Swinson’s leadership campaign last year. A Lib Dem member throughout the coalition years, she protested against the bedroom tax and against the introduction of university tuition fees. In a contest between her and Davey, especially, the party would face a stark choice over how it relates to its recent history.

More broadly, however, the Liberal Democrats are thinking seriously about their post-Brexit direction. Many are aware that 70 per cent of the party membership has joined since the 2015 general election and fear that they merely view the Lib Dems as an anti-Brexit party, with little sense of the liberal values of openness and internationalism that informed opposition to EU withdrawal. “I haven’t heard a passionate case for liberalism or why it matters in people’s lives,” several of the potential candidates told me. Conversely, a candidate like Hobhouse, a first-generation migrant from Germany, could become a lightning rod for the party’s most ardently pro-European members, as she flies the flag for the campaign to rejoin the EU. 

Above all, most know that their future direction and, ultimately, their fate, will be shaped by the new Labour leader. One MP is holding out hope of mass defections if Rebecca Long-Bailey wins the leadership contest, while others envisage working closely with other candidates. Another MP highlights the possibility that the SNP will be damaged by Salmond’s forthcoming trial. The road to a non-Tory majority, they say, is paved on the “annihilation” of the SNP in Scotland (the party currently holds 48 of 59 Scottish seats). And it isn’t all gloom for the Liberal Democrats: the party came second in over 90 seats at the general election and increased its vote share (from 7.4 per cent to 11.6 per cent). In five years’ time, the Lib Dems could well be in a strong position to make a comeback.

As they conduct their election review, watch the Labour leadership contest unfold and quietly prepare for their own (expected to begin after the local elections in May), some in the party wonder if Swinson will return. Her former colleagues are certain that she would never contest a constituency other than East Dunbartonshire. Having twice lost that seat, once in 2015 and again in 2019, it might seem oddly self-flagellatory for the former leader to get back in the saddle. But, as we know, Swinson can bounce back after a punch in the face.

UPDATE 19/1/2019: Following a meeting of the party's Federal Board in London, the Liberal Democrats announced the timetable for electing their new leader. Nominations will open on 11 May and close 28 May. The ballot will open on 18 June and close 15 July, after which the party will announce its new leader.  

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman