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Who is Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem 'girly swot' with her sights set on Downing Street?

Swinson is facing her first election as Lib Dem leader.

Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson.
Liberal Democrats leader Jo Swinson.
Image: PA Images

IN HER FIRST conference speech as Liberal Democrat leader in September, Jo Swinson pitched herself as the UK’s next Prime Minister. 

Swinson said she wanted to stop Brexit and deliver “the biggest liberal movement this country has ever seen”, arguing this could only be done from inside Downing Street.

Whether Swinson’s prime ministerial ambitions were genuine or not only she knows, but a fortnight out from the UK election it’s clear that they will not be realised

There was a brief period at the beginning of the campaign when the Liberal Democrats were touting the prospect of a PM Swinson but that has since given away to more realistic ambitions, like increasing the party’s number of seats or securing a second Brexit referendum. 

To secure the latter, some party figures have even suggested supporting a minority Tory government if the promise of a referendum was attached to a parliament vote on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.  

Such a prospect would pivot the Lib Dems back towards their position in 2010 when they entered into a coalition government with David Cameron’s Conservatives. 

During that ill-fated period in office, Swinson became a Lib Dem minister seven years after being first elected as an MP. 

At 25 the Glasgow native became the youngest MP in parliament, the so-called “baby of the House”, when she first won her seat in 2005.

In the 2015 election bloodbath when the Lib Dems lost almost 50 seats and were left with just eight, Swinson was one of the casualties in losing her East Dunbartonshire seat to the Scottish National Party. 

After losing her seat Swinson took time off to write a book about gender equality called Equal Power and also ran her own business. 

In the snap general election of 2017 Swinson won back her seat and, after former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron stood down, Swinson was named as one of the possible contenders. Instead, she successfully ran for deputy leader to Vince Cable.

In 2018 Swinson became the first MP to take her baby into a Commons debate when cradles her second son Gabriel during a discussion on proxy voting. 

This year she comfortably defeated Ed Davey to become the Lib Dems’ first female leader, winning with a majority of almost 20,000 votes.

At this point the party had successfully managed to establish itself as England’s major unambiguous Remain party, but Swinson’s job was to turn this into electoral success while also actually stopping Brexit.

The most obvious route to achieving the latter goal was to work with Labour, which in turn could risk hurting its ambitions on the former. 

It was a big challenge for Swinson made all the more complicated because Labour’s position on Brexit was far from clear at the time.

Then September of this year Labour voted to back a second referendum but this didn’t change the Lib Dems’ position that it it wanted to revoke Brexit on its own terms. 

jo-swinson-with-her-baby-in-the-commons-chamber Swinson with her baby Gabriel in the House of Commons in 2018. Source: PA Images

As the threat of a no-deal Brexit grew in the past few months, Swinson came under increasing pressure to support an alternative minority government led by Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

She repeatedly ruled this out, citing what she said was Corbyn’s divisiveness. This message was repeated at her party’s general election launch earlier this month.

“I am absolutely categorically ruling out Liberal Democrat votes putting Jeremy Corbyn into No 10,” she said. 

Swinson again argued that she could be Prime Minister and in the early stages of the campaign her party spent much of its effort arguing she should be included in the major TV debates.

On several occasions Swinson said sexism was also at play in the decision not to allow her join Corbyn and Johnson in the head-to-head debates.

She then leaned into this argument further, wearing a ‘Girly Swot’ t-shirt in a boxing ring during a campaign event a fortnight ago.

The phrase was previously used by Boris Johnson to disparage David Cameron and Swinson said she wanted to reclaim it, praising Supreme Court Judge Lady Hale who had done the same.

Swinson has also sought to speak for women who are the targets of abuse online, saying that said she has received “a lot of abuse” but that it is not just politicians who suffer.

But while Swinson’s profile has grown she has also become a more divisive figure herself.

Yougov’s polling suggests that since becoming Lib Dem leader her favorability rating is up by 3 points to 24% while her unfavourable rating has risen by 19 points to 48%.

This is perhaps unsurprising such is the political climate in the UK – but it is nonetheless a problem for Swinson’s party as it seeks to break out from its underdog position.

In the past few days Swinson has attempted to bring make her personal story more public and even fought back tears while opening up about her recently deceased father. 

Her voice cracking with emotion, Swinson told ITV’s Tonight programme that her father would “have loved” to have seen her success.

When asked what he would have been saying to her “on a tough day”, Swinson replied: “He would have said ‘Just go for it’.”

Swinson has led her party for only a few months but the upcoming election still represents potentially a defining moment in her leadership.

This is because the party has so strongly staked its position as a rejection of Brexit that a significant rethink would be needed if the Tories win and Brexit goes ahead. 

Her party currently has 12 seats and Yougov’s much-awaited prediction on Wednesday was that it was on course to win just one more in two week’s time. Such a result would clearly be a disappointment for the party but would likely not be terminal for Swinson should she decide to continue.

Instead, she would have to regroup and rebuild and find another issue for her party to come together on, whether that be campaign to rejoin the EU or something else.

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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