Inside the Lib Dem battle bus as Jo Swinson eyes Jacob Rees-Mogg’s seat in Somerset

Posted On: 
7th November 2019

Nobody could miss the big, bright, orange bus with Jo Swinson’s face beaming down as it rocked up in rural Somerset. 

Jo Swinson visited North East Somerset on Thursday
PA Images

One householder stood outside their home having a good old chuckle as the double decker monstrosity struggled up a narrow lane, before arriving at a forest nursery as part of the Lib Dem leader’s campaign whistle-stop tour. 

It was climate change day, with a pledge that 80% of the UK's energy would come from renewable sources by 2030 if they form the next government.

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Picking an eco-friendly pre-school which focuses on environmental education, with a guaranteed  photo-op with adorable children roasting marshmellows, made perfect sense for Lib Dem bosses.

But why had they taken a busload of journalists all the way to North East Somerset? Although the Lib Dems hold neighbouring Bath, the party trailed in a distant third in 2017, fully 24,000 votes behind the Tories' Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The high-profile Conservative has held the seat since its creation in 2010, and has a healthy 10,000 majority. Surely the Lib Dems don't believe they have a chance of taking it on 12 December?

The fact that it is not one of the 60 "Remain Alliance" seats - which the Libs, Greens and Plaid Cymru are attempting to carve up between them to boost the number of anti-Brexit MPs in Parliament, shows how low down it is on the party's list of target seats.

"Obviously we’ve reached an agreement with Plaid Cymru and the Green party in large number of seats across the country and we think this could make a significant difference,” Ms Swinson told PoliticsHome as she enjoyed a Burger King lunch at the back of the battle bus.

"But there’s many more seats that the Liberal Democrats believe we can win at this election, and we base that on everything from local election results where we got our best ever set…with 700 gains back in May, the European election results where we beat both Labour and the Conservatives parties for the first time in a national election in 100 years.

"And of course both our canvas returns and the sort of polling and survey evidence shows that Liberal Democrats are absolutely on the up and now in contention for hundreds of seats across the country."

Interestingly, the Remain Alliance didn’t give a helping hand to a number of Jo Swinson’s new MP recruits.

Former Labour MPs Angela Smith and Chuka Umunna, and ex-Tories Antoninette Sandbach and Phillip Lee, are among those left to fend for themselves, fighting Conservative majorities, while also trying to fend off bids from the Green Party.

Ms Swinson admitted there were some clashes over which seats would be up for grabs in the alliance.

“Obviously that’s [the negotiations] not without its challenges, particularly in our party and in those other parties, local associations also are able to have an influence on what happens," she said.

“I mean look, it’s the nature of politics, and what we’ve been able to pull together is a really significant package and agreement of us coming together to unite to Remain and it will make a big difference.

“It’s all credit to parties putting aside their narrow party interest in order to look for the national interest.” 

She added: “I know I’m sending a thank you to those Lib Dem candidates who will not be standing in the election as a result of the agreements that have been made, because it is right to recognise that that is a generous act, it’s an act that is selfless and it’s one that is important.”

After just five months as leader, Ms Swinson has seen her number of MPs jump to 20 after a string of defections from the two main parties.

But she insisted she did not have an open door policy, with any would-be Lib Dems having to prove that they sign up to the party's political outlook.

She said: “What I would say about Remain and liberal values is it’s not two separate things.

“The reason we want to remain in the European Union is because of our liberal internationalist values, it’s because we recognise we are stronger when we work with others, when we are open minded and open hearted and we look outward at the world to opportunity rather than an insular approach.

“Our opposition to Brexit is very much rooted in those liberal values and it’s people who share those liberal values in other parties who have a similar view on the whole Brexit issue as well.”

It's then back to the nursery, and it’s a game of campaign trail bingo.

Ms Swinson is sitting around a camp fire with a group of toddlers, getting stuck into a session on how to make a fire.

“You all love this because something could go wrong,” she jokes to the photographers clicking away. 

She’s also at the nursery to talk childcare with owner Charlotte Lucas, and after some fun with the kids it’s time to meet the parents in a Q&A session.

Around a dozen mums and one dad sit on child-sized chairs in a semi-circle around her, asking questions over childcare funding, their concerns over the cost disincentives of going back to work and what the Lib Dems would do about it.

The party’s first female leader also appears to open up about how she juggles her highly-demanding career with being a mum-of-two and how she and her husband rely on childcare to do their jobs.

"I think one of Jo’s biggest attractions is how relatable she is…I think she showed that today," mum-of-two Katherine Howells told PoliticsHome. "She’s put a lot of thought into issues like childcare and funding and that really came across. I was impressed."

The 39-year-old also said she thought the Lib Dems could beat Mr Mogg, who she said was “out of touch” with local voters.

“I’ve only lived here for a few years and over that time he’s just shown how out of touch he is with his constituents, and the country as a whole.

“I’ve not met anyone who’s liked him who’s lived here for any length of time, or who knows what he’s about.

“And it’s not just about the Conservatives, I think it is actually him and he’s shown that with his recent gaffe with Grenfell for example.”

Fellow mum Holli Lewis was more sceptical about what she had heard from Ms Swinson.

She added: “There’s a lot of promises that get made to people that don’t ever get fulfilled, so until people see these things happening, normal people or your everyday people are going to be very sceptical. 

“But we live in hope that things do change, and I’d be interested to keep following her and see what she’s doing.”

With both the Tories and Labour stumbling in the first week of the campaign, the Lib Dems would have been happy with their leader's gaffe-free trip to the south-west. Next stop: North East Fife.