Lesley Riddoch: Are the Lib Dems Tory-lite or truly radical?

Jo Swinson announced her candidacy for the Lib Dem leadership on last week's Question Time
Jo Swinson announced her candidacy for the Lib Dem leadership on last week's Question Time
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Buoyant party must find distinctive policies and a leader capable of commanding the UK stage, writes Lesley Riddoch.

Liberal Democrats are suddenly news again – dangerous enough to warrant Labour’s instant expulsion of nose-holding supporter Alastair Campbell but appealing enough to notch up a remarkable opinion poll first. 
Last week YouGov put the Lib Dems on 24 per cent, with the Brexit Party on 22 per cent and the Tories and Labour tied on 19 per cent. Even though that lead evaporated in the latest Opinium poll (placing the Lib Dems fourth), they’re still celebrating a first UK top spot in nine years.

READ MORE: Dani Garavelli: ‘I disagree with Jo’ moment a bad start for Swinson

The good news for the Lib Dems is that English Remain voters have either forgotten their part in imposing university tuition fees and austerity or decided there are bigger Brexit fish to fry. Whatever the reason, the party most used to losing deposits is riding high. But will they be able to capitalise on this opportunity without the weel kent face of Sir Vince Cable at the helm?

READ MORE: Jo Swinson: I will take on ‘independence obsessed’ SNP

The battle to replace him as leader at the end of July is a modest affair compared with the Tories’ 13-strong line-up. It features just two candidates: Sir Ed Davey and Jo Swinson. Nominations close on 7 June, the day Theresa May bids a tearful farewell.

But at that point the Lib Dems must decide what kind of party they really are – nasty or nice; Tory-lite or genuinely radical; a one-trick, anti-Brexit pony or a vigorous and serious potential government.

It won’t be as easy as it looks. The party’s moment in the sun may finally have arrived but beyond “Bollocks to Brexit” it’s not clear the party has a winning slogan, distinctive policies or a new leader capable of commanding the UK stage.

Take Sir Ed Davey, whose radical credentials are surely damaged by taking a gong from the Tories in consolation for losing his seat after the coalition debacle. Sir Ed’s record as energy minister is underwhelming from a Scottish perspective. Subsidies for community hydro and solar panels were cut and vital subsea connectors to the Northern and Western Isles vetoed because islanders wouldn’t knuckle down and build vast wind farms to (supposedly) de-risk the project and simplify the budgeting process. Even though Alistair Carmichael was Scottish Secretary at the time, the long-awaited Northern Isles cables weren’t built on the Lib Dems’ watch. Mind you, Sir Ed did approve connectors to Norway and Ireland instead. Nice. He also introduced contracts for difference (CfD) in place of subsidies for onshore and offshore wind plus marine renewables. Somehow Scots firms have won only a handful of these contracts and a new island-shaped CfD was only introduced last week. Soon after losing his seat in 2015, Ed was knighted and joined the PR firm that represents EDF Energy. EDF had just been awarded the contract to build Hinkley Point C nuclear power station by… Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey. Oh, yes, and Sir Ed supports fracking too.

This is what passes for a radical record on tackling climate change in England. Anyway, back to Brexit – doubtless the Lib Dems’ strongest card. Sir Ed wants to use “the Cooper-Letwin process” so the Brexit default is Revoke rather than No Deal on 
31 October. Whoop, whoop. When the crowd-funded Revoke Article 50 legal action failed its first hurdle in February 2018, Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine promptly quit. Happily for MPs, all are now legally entitled to press the Revoke button, thanks to the tenacity, vision and co-operative capacity of the original petitioners in the Green, SNP and Labour parties. Without their constancy when the going got rough, Ms Jardine’s colleague Lib Dem MP Tom Brake would not have been able to join the posse in the latter stages and give the Lib Dems a democratic name-check. Poor.

Meanwhile Sir Ed’s sole opponent, Jo Swinson, announced her candidacy on last week’s Question Time, taking a pop at the SNP’s failure to close the educational attainment gap. The MP for East Dunbartonshire cited figures from the Scottish Index on Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) which suggests only 4 per cent of children in Govan go on to higher education. This immediately provoked a social media storm, not least from Govan High’s headteacher who cited more recent figures which show the school’s actually doing pretty well.

Was this an own goal or just plain baffling? Well, it would be useful if a Holyrood statistician could explain how such wildly differing stats can attach to roughly the same educational cohort. It would also be pointless to maintain that income doesn’t play a shamefully large part in determining access to opportunity in Scotland. But that’s why roughly half the population supports Scottish independence so all policy decisions, tax levers, benefit levels and income streams are under Scottish control, all ability to offload responsibility are at an end and a truly concerted shift of resources can tackle Dickensian levels of poverty, generated by David Cameron’s Con-Dem coalition government. Just for the record, both Sir Ed and Ms Swinson were members – she voted 11 times for the bedroom tax, five times against raising benefits in line with inflation, seven times for disability cuts and 26 times for general welfare cuts. But bygones…

Even though the SIMD figures do exist, the statistical basis of her Question Time rebuke was dodgy, the “Milngavie air of superiority” (as Scotland on Sunday columnist Dani Garavelli put it) was sniffy, the “forced breeziness” a little wearing and the choice of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s seat as a target was negative and predictable. If Ms Swinson aims to outdo Ruth Davidson with high octane attacks on the SNP’s record in office, good luck. The SNP isn’t perfect. But politicians in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. And thanks to the Lib Dems’ disastrous involvement with the Tories, shatterproof glass only covers them south of the Border for the single issue of Brexit. Even there, they must share the honours as second vote champions with the UK Greens. In Scotland, the latest poll puts them in fourth on just 12 per cent. And this despite winning a seat in recent European elections.

If it’s too late to bring on a fresh face, the Lib Dems must find a fresh approach. Otherwise, it’s not just the big two parties that face political oblivion – ultimately, the big two-dependent Lib Dems will become political casualties as well.