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Liberal Democrat conference: The lure of Jo Swinson's yellow brick road

Julian Glover

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy strides along the yellow brick road in search of the Emerald City. In Bournemouth today the new Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson is trying to do the same. Tagging along in place of the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow are recruits of her own: MPs Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna (who joined from Labour), Sam Gyimah, Sarah Wollaston and Phillip Lee (who have done the same from the Conservatives).

It’s an unexpected gang, a scratch team of ambitious MPs who can’t ever have imagined they’d end up in a party that not long ago a lot of people thought was dead. Umunna hoped to run Labour. Gyimah worked alongside David Cameron in Downing Street and ran for the Tory leadership earlier this year: now both will be wondering if they will be in parliament once the general election comes.

But together this gang might just change Britain. They have joined a party that’s betting everything on the gamble that enough people in the right places hate Brexit so much that they will back a party which promises to wipe it out without another referendum.

Swinson has taken a big leap: she’s backing revoking Article 50 — which means resetting the system to stay in. That isn’t what she promised to do when she ran for the leadership. It’s unsettled some MPs. But it has a strength too: it’s simple and it winds up her political opponents. The Liberal Democrats are being noticed for the first time since the coalition with the Tories ended in 2010.

Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson (Jonathan Brady/PA)

That’s why there is a buzz about the party: a massive shift from what came before. A year ago, after all, it was nowhere. Just before last year’s party conference one pollster put it on six per cent of the vote. Even hard-core supporters of staying in the EU seemed to have given up on it. Vince Cable, then the leader, gave a thoughtful 45-minute speech on the perils of Brexit — but all anyone really noticed was that he said “exotic spresm” instead of “erotic spasm” in a fluffed line attacking Tories.

Even some of its own MPs wondered if they wouldn’t be better off joining a new centre-ground political force rather than clinging on as an eccentric minority.

The Lib Dems bounced back thanks to two massive pieces of luck. The first came earlier this year when the much-hyped new centre party did finally emerge — only for Change UK to pop as quickly as an old crisp packet when its new MPs realised it was a lot easier to leave the Tories and Labour than it was to start a new force actually able to win elections.

That made the familiar old Lib Dems, who have been plugging away in contests for years in good times and bad, look competent.

Then came more luck. By refusing to pass Theresa May’s Brexit deal, hard-line Tory rebels gave the Lib Dems an escape route from irrelevance. By delaying Brexit, these rebels triggered European elections in which the Lib Dems won almost 20 per cent of the vote and 16 seats — coming second with more than double the support of the Tories.

That showed that a lot of people in a lot of parts of Britain were still ready to back the party even if the media had overlooked its existence — and that result came just weeks after local elections in much of England saw the party gain 704 councillors while Labour and the Tories lost ground.

Overnight this allowed Cable to stand down as party leader on a high even he sounds surprised by. His successor, Jo Swinson, is young, keen and, as the party’s first female leader, is part of a new Lib Dem generation which looks a lot more diverse than the older, white male MPs who formed the core of the coalition with the Conservatives.

Yes, there’s muttering internally against some of the MPs who have defected from other parties — and who haven’t always backed a liberal line on social issues such as gay rights. Some worry that the new recruits are celebrity blow-ins who haven’t done the hard graft delivering party Focus leaflets in election after election.

But against that, a lot of Lib Dems —and membership is at a record high at around 120,000 — are elated to be in a party that seems to be going places. Even Ken Clarke, once the living definition of a lifelong Tory, says he might vote Lib Dem. Amber Rudd, who not long ago was being talked of as a potential Tory leader, says she might back proportional representation.

Now the party has an issue — Brexit — on which it alone is making a clear claim to want to remain in the EU. And it has a leader in Swinson who isn’t famous for all the wrong reasons and who stands a chance of cutting though to people who don’t want the leaders of either of the old main parties to run Britain. She’s still unknown — but she doesn’t have the negatives of Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn.

Still, what counts is winning seats when the election comes. If it happens before Brexit, the line on revoke and remain is a strong card in places — but maybe not in rural bits of the south-west which used to elect people such as former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown. Can it break through instead in pro-Remain Tory bastions such as the Cities of London and Westminster constituency where Umunna will stand?

For all the hype, the Lib Dem poll rating has fallen back a bit since the summer — it still trails Labour. On a straight swing on current support it would win only a dozen or so extra seats.

But party analysts are working on a 40-40-140 strategy. That means they think there are 40 seats which could be won on current performance. Then there are 40 more they calculate could be won if its vote share goes up – making 80 seats an outside bet. And finally, if during a campaign the bandwagon really starts rolling, 140 might be in reach, since if the party’s vote passes above 30 per cent, modelling suggests a whole swathe could tip into the party’s lap.

Well, they can dream. Reality could be brutal: but the astute economist and former government adviser Giles Wilkes has made a strong case on his blog that conventional models underestimate Lib Dem potential by at least 40 seats. And if that’s true, it might mean a hung parliament in which it would be the key player — just as it was in 2010.

And success like that might give the party a nightmare. Does it actually want to go into government again? Swinson says she won’t work with Corbyn or Johnson in government — which rules out a coalition for now, although she did describe the idea of working with Labour to pass legislation after an election as “hypothetical”. While Brexit is on hold and there is a chance of a referendum, Swinson’s line that a vote for her is a vote to stop Brexit will have appeal. But after that?

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At the Bournemouth conference, there’s talk of new environmental policies and a focus on education. But as every Lib Dem leader has found, no one listens to plans from a party they don’t think will win power.

That’s why Swinson thinks it makes sense to push hard to make her party the ultimate home for Remain voters. It’s punchy and it has a point. Marching down the yellow brick road, she’s off on what could be an extraordinary journey.

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