Jo Swinson: "I'd love to be Prime Minister. Politics is more volatile than ever, so who knows?”
Jo Swinson is going up against her friend Sir Ed Davey in the race to become the next Lib Dem leader. The former minister says her party should not be considering cutting deals with Labour or the Tories – and must aim for the top themselves. She talks to Charlotte Henry about why she would love to be prime minister
It is a grey, wet, Monday morning, the kind that is depressingly typical of much of the UK summertime, but Jo Swinson is full of energy as she arrives at a bustling Waterloo to begin a campaign visit. The MP for East Dunbartonshire, and current Lib Dem deputy leader, is the favourite to succeed Sir Vince Cable for the top job next month.
We are on our way towards Guildford and the headquarters of Surrey Satellite Technology, a company that makes small commercial satellites that are launched into space, it is starting to feel like it is the Lib Dems who have rocket boosters under them.
Swinson, for one, believes the party she hopes to lead faces a huge opportunity. “People are crying out for an alternative and there’s loads of people with liberal values who are dismayed by the shambles of Brexit, and that’s perhaps the catalyst for them to rethink their political allegiances,” she says.
“Once people start rethinking those political allegiances then there’s so much opportunity. You’ve then got a hearing and you can bring people into that broader movement.”
It is that broader movement, as much as the party, that Swinson wants to lead. She believes that she is the right person to “reach out to new voters… across the generations, right across the length and breadth of the country”.
Although both are close and competitive, the contrast between the Lib Dem contest featuring Swinson and former Energy Secretary Sir Ed Davey and the one taking place in the Conservative party is stark. The Lib Dem parliamentary party agreed that both would be nominated by two MPs to create the contest, then the MPs would remain neutral. “I would argue ours is by far the more civilised,” says Swinson.
Another contrast between the two leadership races is the response to revelations about the candidates’ past drug use. Swinson has admitted to smoked cannabis as a student. “Not particularly Earth-shattering, lots of people did and still do,” she says. “We ought to change our drugs laws because they don’t work. We don’t treat drug abuse like a public health issue and we should.”
She hits out at what she sees as the hypocrisy from Conservative leadership candidates on drugs. She does not name Environment Secretary Michael Gove, but seems to have him in mind: “You’ve got people who get criminalised and the full weight of the law comes down on them and yet for cabinet ministers it’s just like ‘okay, fine then’. That double standard is really troubling. They pursue these drugs policies, the so-called war on drugs, trying to act tough even though they don’t work.”
The Lib Dem contenders have known each other for more than two decades and worked together on foreign affairs issues and in government. They are also friends. Swinson says she would “absolutely” work with Davey if he wins and would have him in her team. She insists that “both of us are very happy to work with the other one, whatever the outcome of the contest”.
“There’s not really a lot of difference between me and Ed because actually the party’s united,” she observes. “We’re not in a battle for the soul of the Liberal Democrats… it’s really more about okay, we’ve got this great opportunity, who is the best candidate to lead us forward?”
No doubt the general positivity of the Lib Dem contest is being fuelled by an upturn in fortunes for the party. A strong second place finish at the European Parliament elections, followed by a bombshell YouGov poll which put them in first place for the first time since 2010, have given the Lib Dems a spring in their step.
But is this just a mid-term blip in uncertain political times, or is British politics on the verge of a major realignment? Swinson is clear she is “aiming for the top” and wants to lead the Lib Dems back into government. Could she even go one step further than her former boss Nick Clegg and enter Number Ten? “I’d love to be Prime Minister,” she says. “I’m not underestimating the scale of the challenge but equally politics is more volatile than I’ve known it, so who knows?”
You can’t blame the Lib Dems for being excited about the improvement in results, having endured four years in the doldrums. However, there have been other EU and local elections over the years at which people have been happy to lend the Lib Dems their vote before swinging back to Labour and the Conservatives come a General Election. The events of the last few weeks do not then necessarily mean party members should yet “go back to [their] constituencies and prepare for government”, as David Steel once urged.
The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, too, remains a major barrier to any party hoping to break the duopoly of Labour the Conservatives. If the Lib Dems are to return to government, it’s likely to be as part of a pact with one of the two major parties. But Swinson, who served as a PPS to both Cable and Clegg before becoming a minister in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, is thinking bigger.
She lambasts Jeremy Corbyn as a Brexiteer “harking back to the 1970s” who “plans for the economy as if nationalisation is the answer to everything, which it is not”. Equally, she says whoever succeeds Theresa May is “going to be a Brexiteer, and a hard Brexiteer, with no idea how to address the issues the country is actually facing” and who is “being dragged off to the right by the fear of Farage and the Brexit Party.”
She insists that she’s “not taking anything for granted… but the current poll ratings certainly don’t suggest that there’s anything automatic about what are currently the biggest two parties retaining those positions.”
“The country needs an alternative because neither of those prospects are ones that most people really want to contemplate, so as the Lib Dems we need to build this movement and we should be aiming right for the top.”
Things have not always been so happy for Swinson. She was one of the dozens of Lib Dem MPs who lost their seat in the bloodbath of the 2015 General Election. Another of them was her husband, the former Lib Dem MP for Chippenham Duncan Hames. The couple’s first son was 16 months old at the time and Swinson says election night 2015 was “pretty grim”.
“For anyone who’s lost their job it’s a fairly bruising experience and obviously having that on national telly… it’s not great.” She says the election brought about “a lot of uncertainty and a lot of issues to be dealing with” for her and her family.
She recalls watching her father lose his job during her teenage years and the difficulties he faced. She says he was supportive during the period she was out of Parliament, acting as a sounding board when she went to set up her own consulting firm, as he had done years earlier. She says she enjoyed the experience of setting up and running her own business but says she “definitely felt a lack of a mission… there was a gap there,” that even writing a book could not fill.
Despite all this, she does not regret her party going into the coalition, nor serving as a minister within it. “I was very confident it was the right thing to do, it was the right thing for the country. I argued strongly we should be negotiating with Labour, and we did negotiate with Labour. They weren’t very interested in doing a deal and when you looked at the arithmetic of it that actually wasn’t going to work anyway, but I knew. I mean I represented a constituency in the west of Scotland, right? I was aware. Eyes were open that going into coalition with the Conservatives was not going to be necessarily viewed positively.
“I knew that it might make it impossible for me to win my seat again. I wasn’t resigned to that, I was absolutely campaigning hard up until 10 o’clock on polling day in 2015,” she adds.
Another difficult period for Swinson came when she was criticised for her part in the handling of sexual misconduct allegations against former party chief executive Lord Chris Rennard. “I've reflected a lot on it,” she says, “and I think the thing I would do differently now would be to push hard to encourage a formal written complaint. And I didn't at the time because I was also friends with people who were making these complaints and we got the behaviour to stop, which was one of the things that was absolutely wanted. But they were concerned that they didn't want to do that [submit a formal written complaint], partly because of what the consequences would be, and I couldn't hand on my heart say ‘oh no no it will be absolutely fine’ because we were talking about someone in the party who had a horrendous amount of control.”
She says that she is “absolutely crystal clear” that Lord Rennard will not be involved in campaigns if she becomes the leader. Alistair Webster QC found that allegations made against Lord Rennard were “credible” but that there was an under 50 per cent chance they would meet the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ criminal threshold.
Swinson explains that she is “hugely frustrated that the party processes concluded in the way they did” but notes “they have been changed since then, not least in terms of the standard of burden of proof rather than having to have some kind of courtroom level ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ which is not in normal terms would be used in professional situations these days.”
The Lib Dems’ recent success contrasts with the downturn in fortunes for Change UK. Six MPs quit the newly formed party following their disastrous performance in the European elections, and speculation is mounting that some, including Chuka Umunna, could soon join the Lib Dems. “There is all sorts of speculation in the newspapers which I’m not going to get into,” says Swinson, notably not ruling out the possibility.
Swinson explains that it is “absolutely not a decision for the leader of the party,” but for local members to decide whether Umunna stands to be the party’s candidate in his current Streatham constituency.
She says that she has not “explicitly” discussed the issue with Umunna, “but we’ve obviously talked about how do we work together in our parliamentary tactics and so on and particularly on how do we get that momentum across the country to stay in the EU.”
It may have been that fight against Brexit that has put her party back on the map, but the battle for, as Swinson puts it, “liberal values” goes beyond the one issue. She gives short shrift to Esther McVey and her comments that parents know best about whether children should be given age appropriate education about LGBT relationships. “To quote the poster, some people are gay... get over it,” she says.
She is equally unimpressed with Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, another Tory leadership contender, reaffirming his belief that abortion should be limited to 12 weeks. “I’m not saying men shouldn’t be allowed to legislate on these matters because obviously everybody in parliament legislates on those things, but there is a degree of humility about understanding the experience, because I kind of think only someone who hasn’t been pregnant could perhaps say that with such a glib nature.”
Swinson says that when she was becoming interested in politics in the 1990s “there was quite a consensus amongst the different parties of small l social liberal-mindedness,” but that consensus no longer exists.
“There can be no complacency about that whatsoever because we’re still having to fight to stop things going backwards.”
That fight is happening now, and Jo Swinson is not backing away from it.