If you could choose the timing at which you became party leader, taking over the reigns in the middle of the most divisive and polarising political event in decades would probably not be top of most people’s list. This is, however, where Jo Swinson finds herself, leading a party whose members are solidly in favour of the opposite of the 2016 referendum result. Things seem to be moving in the right direction, but given how many times the party has risen in the past — or had a rise predicted — only to fall shortly afterwards, the path ahead will not be easy.
The total lack of discipline within the Conservative party has resulted in two defections so far, with more possibly to follow. Both were masterfully stage-managed, with Phillip Lee crossing the floor in the middle of a Prime Ministerial statement, and Sam Gyimah’s conversion announced at the start of the party’s conference, giving a boost to morale.1 Given how rare defections are, two within a short period of time allows the Lib Dems to portray themselves as a home for moderate MPs fed up with the pro-Brexit, pro no-deal message from the Conservatives — and perhaps the pro-Brexit, anti no-deal, maybe pro-second referendum stance of Labour too.
However, these new additions to the ranks of the party have not gone down well in some quarters, and the welcoming of Phillip Lee resulted in the immediate resignation of several long-standing party members, particularly from the LGBT executive. Balancing the party’s position in Parliament with the activists who pound the streets delivering leaflets (and much more) is nothing new — Nick Clegg came unstuck here too — but the current political climate has made this job even harder than usual.
Unfortunately, the current Parliamentary arithmetic makes MPs more valuable than party activists, at least in the very near term. When everything is about Brexit, those who can vote in Parliament are top of the pile. If and when this mess is sorted out, a decision can be taken on whether to adopt the defectors as Liberal Democrat candidates in the next general election, and they may lose their seats anyway. At that point, the activists who resigned may well rejoin the party.
It’s not just internal party politics that are creating challenges for Swinson though, as she also has to consider the party’s wider appeal to the electorate, given that an election seems likely at some point this year. She has taken a bold step by positioning the party in favour of unilateraly revoking the Article 50 notification and keeping the UK within the EU under its current membership terms.
Admittedly, the revocation promise only applies if the party wins a majority, which seems incredibly unlikely given that its support is dispersed across the country — a position poorly rewarded under First Past the Post. If instead the party ends up in coalition, it can legitimately drop this policy in the same way that it dropped its pledge to scrap tuition fees — despite the damage this did to its reputation.2
Of course, once the country has decided what to do about Brexit — beyond kicking the can down the road by another 3-6 months with an extension — the Liberal Democrats will have to come up with an alternative message. At the moment they are coming across a single issue party,3 which works for now. If the UK decides to Remain, perhaps there will be a boost for the Liberal Democrats in the polls. If we Leave, where next? Does the party become focused on trying to get the country — minus Scotland, which will probably depart the UK — to rejoin the EU? If not, what will its distinctive message be? Something in the middle of Labour and the Conservatives?
To overuse a naval metaphor, Swinson has managed to plot a course through stormy waters, whilst keeping the party ship afloat and outbreaks of mutiny at an acceptable level. The real challenge will come at the tipping point of a decision on Brexit — whether that be crashing out without a deal, a referendum, or a general election. For now, she retains her four rings and the confidence of most of her crew.
- Technically Gyimah was not a defection, as he was kicked out of the Conservative party for voting against the government, and thus had a short period as an independent MP before joining the Lib Dems.
- It probably didn’t help that the 2010 coalition government, of which the Liberal Democrats were the junior partners, not only kept tuition fees, but increased them up to three times their previous level.
- This is not a criticism — Brexit dominates the headlines and every party has to choose where they stand at some point.