Lib Dems try to seize former heartlands as Swinson vows to take scalps on two fronts

Sam Gyimah with Jo Swinson last night. Picture: Finnbarr Webster/Getty
Sam Gyimah with Jo Swinson last night. Picture: Finnbarr Webster/Getty
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Jo Swinson delivers her first conference speech as Liberal Democrat leader on Tuesday, seeking to fire up hundreds of party activists and – with an election potentially just weeks away – convince the rest of the country she can lead the fight against Brexit.

Last night, she received a huge boost to her cause when former Conservative minister and leadership contender Sam Gyimah took to the conference stage amid wild adulation as he confirmed he had become the sixth MP to defect this year. He has been a prominent advocate of a second referendum and was briefly in the race to replace Theresa May as Conservative leader in June.

As Swinson stands up in Bournemouth, Craig Harrow will be chasing a smaller audience. The Scottish Lib Dem veteran will travelling by sailboat to the isles of Rum, Eigg and Muck to canvas a combined population of around 140 people.

Ross, Skye and Lochaber is the largest constituency in the UK, and the Lib Dem candidate is planning to cover it by whatever means necessary over the coming weeks and months. “I’m going by bike, and sailing, by train, and by bus,” says Harrow. “It will be quite good fun, I think.”

He knows how important it is to visit even the smallest communities of the West Highland seat. “When it was part of [former Lib Dem] Russell Johnston’s seat, and I was working for him, his majority came via Rum, Eigg and Muck,” says Harrow, recalling the tightly fought 1992 election. “And the helicopter crashed going to collect the ballot boxes with his majority in it.”

A nervous wait followed. “Russell hadn’t actually been out there for ten years, and the fate of his next five years in parliament was in the hands of Rum, Eigg and Muck. It holds a special place in liberal folklore.”

In 2017 the Scottish Lib Dems gained three seats. But many of those they held before the near-wipeout at the hands of the SNP in 2015 remain out of reach. In pockets like the West Highlands, Northeast Scotland and Fife, however, the party believes the next election offers an opportunity and it aims to take out some of the highest-profile SNP and Scottish Tories, including the nationalist leader at Westminster and MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, Ian Blackford.

“I absolutely think that’s possible,” says Swinson says when asked about the chances of winning more Scottish seats. “We have a very strong position, because we’re standing to keep Scotland in the UK and the UK in the European Union. We are the only party that’s offering that.”

Results from the EU election in May, which saw the Lib Dems double their vote share to 13.9 per cent and push the Tories and Labour into fourth and fifth place respectively, give the party hope that they can convince Unionists of all stripes to back them as the best option against the SNP.

Wendy Chamberlain – a shinty-playing former police officer – has the job of overturning the narrowest majority in the UK in Northeast Fife, which the SNP’s Europe spokesman Stephen Gethins held by just two votes in 2017. The Tories have yet to choose their candidate.

“I’ve had conversations with people who voted for the Brexit Party in the European elections who are determining what they now want most, and staying in the UK is part of that,” she says.

Harrow adds that the perception Labour is prepared to do a “behind the scenes deal” with the SNP to form a government and grant a second independence referendum is helping draw support to the Lib Dems.

“There are a lot of former Labour voters who tell you how they have no time for Corbyn, and no time for the SNP, and they’re coming across to us.”

John Waddell is facing a different challenge as he faces Theresa May’s former PPS, Andrew Bowie in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine: convince Remainers to back the Lib Dems over the SNP. “[The Tories] lost their leader who was on every single leaflet – it was ‘Ruth Davidson’s candidate’ and ‘Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives’,” he says. “The tactical vote that elected the Tories in 2017 – those people are getting buyers remorse, but they don’t feel like going back to the SNP.”

The nationalists have yet to select a candidate to contest a seat they held for just two years, limiting their ground operation, and Waddell believes he can capitalise on disaffection with Boris Johnson’s government.