The Liberal Democrat leader faces a battle to win voters from the other unionist parties, writes Lesley Riddoch
Can the Liberal Democrats ride two political horses at once? Jo Swinson is about to find out.
In Brexit-supporting England, she hopes to clean up as the party leader determined to stop Brexit in its tracks. Thanks to yesterday’s change of policy at the annual conference in Bournemouth, her party has dispensed with a second Brexit referendum and will simply revoke Article 50 given the chance, thus piling the pressure on swithering Labour. Of course, this “nuclear” option exists only because of cross-party legal action in Europe from which the Lib Dems boldly abstained. But bygones. Swinson’s hope is that English Remain voters will feel happier in the “come all ye” Lib Dems than the compromised political camps of yore.
Tory Remainers will watch the stream of like-minded ex-Tory MPs treading the boards at Bournemouth and happily switch. Left-wing Remain voters, fed-up with Labour’s confusing Brexit strategy, will hold their noses and back Lib Dem candidates in the next general election. That’s the theory – but will Tory and Labour voters oblige?
They did in the English local elections this year, giving the Lib Dems 700 new council seats (including the home ward of Jacob Rees-Mogg) and control of 18 councils. They did again in the European elections when the Lib Dems beat Labour and the Conservatives for the first time since 1906. Did Brexit clarity win the day? The Lib Dems certainly think so.
The party contains boatloads of defectors with many irreconcilable political tendencies and some Lib Dems must be feeling less than radiant about the number of austerity-supporting, illiberal Tories in their midst. But no matter. With Brexit dominating everything, Swinson believes voters will simply observe that needs must when the devil’s hindmost.
In Remain-supporting Scotland, though, a slightly different one-trick pony is being trotted out. Here the Lib Dems face stiff anti-Brexit competition from the SNP, so they’re shaping up instead to supplant Ruth Davidson and her leaderless Scottish Tories as the voice of unionism and Hammer of the Nats. North of the Border, Swinson’s hope is that Brexit-supporting unionists will somehow overlook her party’s ultra-Remain stance, hold their noses and vote Lib Dem in key marginal seats. In this, she’s buoyed by the result of the Shetland by-election, where the Lib Dem candidate, Beatrice Wishart, hung on to the seat vacated by former party leader Tavish Scott, thanks to tactical voting on a major scale. Shetland’s Conservative candidate polled a derisory 3.6 per cent and lost his deposit, while the Labour candidate won just 152 votes. It’s only the second time the Greens have beaten Labour in a Scottish constituency – the other was Glasgow Kelvin, contested by their co-leader Patrick Harvie in 2016. Labour’s 1.3 per cent share of the vote was the lowest it has ever polled in a parliamentary by-election.
Of course, the Lib Dems weren’t the sole beneficiaries of Labour’s collapse – Tom Wills was up 9 per cent on the SNP’s 2016 result and an independent Northern Isles candidate saved his deposit.
But the Lib Dems certainly won votes from Brexit-supporting unionists on the “millionaire’s island” of Whalsay who voted overwhelmingly for the pro-Remain party, not pro-Leave Tory or Ukip candidates. Support for the Union seems to have trumped support for Brexit on Whalsay, even though the tiny fishing community returned a whopping Leave vote of 81 per cent in 2016 Brexit.
But Scotland isn’t Whalsay and Jo Swinson isn’t Ruth Davidson.
Can the Lib Dem leader effect a wholesale conversion of unionist voters across Scotland on the grounds that she is the leader most likely to block independence?
Willie Rennie’s defiant weekend comments certainly prepare the ground. The Scottish Lib Dem leader insists an independence referendum should be blocked even if the SNP and Greens win a majority at the next Holyrood election, adding that there should not be another referendum in his lifetime. Not another independence referendum, that is. The Lib Dems remain committed to another Brexit referendum if Boris Johnson gets a deal before they can hit the Revoke button.
Of course, consistency has never been the Lib Dems’ strong point and, in these disruptive and opportunistic times, parts of the Scottish electorate may actually admire such brazen double standards. Interestingly, the Lib Dems’ new policy – deploying the (slightly) easier mechanism of a general election mandate to block Brexit – contrasts with the SNP’s determination to win a Section 30 order via the toughest constitutional route imaginable. Should Nicola Sturgeon take a leaf out of Swinson’s book? Maybe, although a weekend poll suggests that a formal indyref2 has the backing of most British voters. With “don’t knows” excluded, 60 per cent of those sampled were in favour, with just 40 per cent against. Evidently, the rest of the UK is inching away from “our precious Union”, whether from a #F---OffScotland perspective or more broad-minded support for Scotland’s right to choose.
The question for Swinson is whether the Lib Dems can prompt an exodus from the other unionist parties that’s large enough to win seats without just splitting the vote. That’ll be tough. It’s unlikely there’ll be a pact between the Lib Dems, Tories and Scottish Labour so that one unionist candidate gets a clear run – saving the Union is special, but not that special.
So a lot rests on Swinson’s authority and personal appeal. Rumours were circulating that she might seek a safer seat such as Vince Cable’s constituency of Twickenham – a metropolitan move that would have made her look “frit” and confirmed complaints that she spends next to no time in her East Dunbartonshire constituency. But even defending a Scottish seat, Davidson’s unionist credentials are hard to match. She sounds, looks and behaves like a tough, self-made, working-class Scot. Swinson doesn’t. Davidson led a party with the word “Unionist” in its name (if not its priorities). Swinson doesn’t. Will moderate Scots warm to a party captured by the “wet” remnants of the English Tory and Labour parties? With the Brexit war guns blazing, will Brexit and Remain supporting unionists be able to sink their differences and find common cause within the Lib Dems?
That may be one circle too many for even Swinson to square.