Jo Swinson elected new leader of Liberal Democrats

Party predicted to gain another Westminster MP in upcoming byelection

Jo Swinson new leader of Britain's anti-Brexit Liberal Democrat party has been critical of Boris Johnson in her opening speech as leader of the party. Swinson is the party's first female leader.

 

Jo Swinson on Monday became the first woman to lead the Liberal Democrats, urging MPs from other parties to join her on a crusade to take on “nationalism and populism” and stop Brexit.

“I stand here not just as the leader of the Liberal Democrats but as a candidate for prime minister,” declared Ms Swinson, in a highly optimistic victory speech that reflected the party’s recent resurgence.

The Lib Dem recovery in recent months – coupled with deep Conservative and Labour divisions over Brexit and the disintegration of the new Change UK centrist group – has given Britain’s third party a new lease of life and a fresh sense of purpose.

Ms Swinson (39) defeated Ed Davey to secure the Lib Dem leadership in a contest decided on a 72 per cent turnout by party members.

She secured 47,000 votes compared to the 28,000 obtained by Sir Ed, a former energy minister, in an amicable contest which was marked by the high degree of agreement between the two candidates.

Ms Swinson will succeed Vince Cable (76), who she previously served as deputy.

The choice of a central London cabaret venue for the coronation of the new Lib Dem leader was a sign of the party’s attempt to rediscover its roots as an alternative and anti-establishment force, after this was compromised by five years in coalition government with the Tories between 2010 and 2015.

Ms Swinson, MP for the Scottish constituency of East Dunbartonshire, said: “In the face of nationalism, populism and the catastrophe of Brexit, the two old parties have failed.” She added: “I will do whatever it takes to stop Brexit.”

The mother of two young sons will project a very different image to the two older men she now has in her sights: Boris Johnson, expected to become Conservative leader on Tuesday, and Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader.

‘Baby of the House’

Educated at a state school in Scotland, Ms Swinson went on to study management at the London School of Economics. She was elected to the House of Commons at 25, becoming the youngest MP and dubbed “baby of the House”.

She insisted on Monday that “liberalism is alive and thriving” and that it was needed to counter international trends of nationalism, adding: “We value openness but Britain is pulling up the drawbridge.”

Ms Swinson claimed Mr Johnson was “not fit for office”, saying his failure this month to fully defend the British ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, was an example of his willingness to indulge US president Donald Trump.

“Boris Johnson is more interested in sucking up to Donald Trump than in standing up for British values of decency, tolerance and respect,” she added.

She went on to claim Labour was mired in a scandal about anti-Semitism and that Mr Corbyn was unable to take a principled position on Brexit.

In an appeal to Conservative and Labour MPs to defect to her party, Ms Swinson said: “If you believe this country deserves better, that we stop Brexit, that we can stop Johnson . . . and Corbyn, then work with us, join us. My door is always open.”

Ms Swinson’s allies noted that only a few months ago the Lib Dems had looked in danger of being overwhelmed by the newly formed anti-Brexit Change UK group, but now the party was in rude health.

The Lib Dems, currently polling about 20 per cent in opinion surveys, have made a virtue of opposition to Brexit.

In May’s European Parliament elections, the Lib Dems secured 20 per cent of the vote, finishing second behind Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. The Lib Dems also did well in May’s local elections, gaining more than 500 seats.

The party could get an early lift under Ms Swinson’s leadership because it hopes to win the Brecon and Radnorshire parliamentary by-election] on August 1st, taking the seat from the Conservatives.

The possibility of Mr Johnson becoming prime minister and then pursuing a no-deal Brexit is seen by some Lib Dems as a potential catalyst this autumn for boosting the party’s support and increasing its influence at Westminster.

Sir Vince said before he stepped down that he thought more MPs would join the Lib Dems from other parties, following the defection of Chuka Umunna from Change UK. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019