Can Jo Swinson Pull Off The Impossible?

The Lib Dem leader represents a new generation of politicians but there's plenty that could burst the bubble.

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“Today I am standing here as your candidate for Prime Minister.” Jo Swinson’s bold claim to the Lib Dem conference will probably feature on the evening news bulletins tonight.

And for the leader of a third party (with a tiny number of seats) in this weird shadow election campaign, getting any decent primetime telly exposure will be counted as ‘job done’.

We are currently living through turbulent times and the status quo won’t be on the ballot paper in a few weeks’ time. Perhaps for the first time ever, the snap election will be a battle between three different kinds of ‘change candidate’.

Boris Johnson will say he’s the Brexit Breakthrough man, a breath of fresh air after Theresa May’s stagnation (and polls show his personal ratings are getting better). Jeremy Corbyn will say his premiership will mark the end of nearly a decade of Tory (half of it Tory-Lib Dem) austerity.

But unlike the others, Swinson will actually look like change the change she’s talking about. Just 39, she can rightly say she represents a new generation of politicians. And as a working mother, she will look and sound millions of the very voters that every party needs to win and is desperate to woo.

Her best soundbite today came when she attacked Johnson’s reflexive sexism, and his talk of ‘girly swots’ and ‘big girl’s blouses’: “Boris Johnson thinks being a woman is a weakness. He’s going to find out it isn’t.”

Up against two older blokes whom she portrays as both politically extreme and pro-Brexit, she personifies her own pitch: liberal, moderate, Remainer - and a fresh face. As one Lib Dem activist said straight after her speech: “Who do you want? Stupid Boris or stuck-in-the-past Corbyn?”

Of course, Swinson’s critics will argue that in fact she’s the extremist (revoking Article 50 is not exactly a way to unite the nation) on Brexit. Yet in fact her biggest obstacle to Downing Street is the first-past-the-post electoral system that means the Lib Dems need a miraculous surge to the high 20s in the polls before they can clear more than a hundred seats.

Swinson could do well in a presidential system, but ours is a stubbornly parliamentary democracy (albeit one that referendums test to the limit). I recall how, six years after David Steel’s “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government” line, a (now famous) pollster told me as a student that tactical voting in the 1987 election would see Margaret Thatcher swept from power. Within weeks, Mrs T had won her third term in office.

For all the volatility about, the same hard facts face Swinson today. In Tory-Lib Dem seats, she may clean up, just as her party did in the Euro elections. But if you’re a centrist Labour voter in a Labour-Tory marginal, will you really vote Lib Dem with the risk of allowing Johnson to claim another vital seat? If you’re a moderate Tory will you vote Lib Dem with the risk of allowing Corbyn to become PM?

There is one final bubble-bursting moment that looms too. Just imagine if Johnson somehow pulls off Brexit. The PM would kill Farage’s Brexit Party at a stroke. Corbyn would be free of the albatross that’s hung round his neck. But unless they opt to campaign to rejoin, the Lib Dems would lose the single issue that’s revived them.

New Lib Dem recruit Chuka Umunna said today “we’re not drunk on our success”. Yet the party did feel kinda tipsy, given everything that’s still stacked against it.

“No prime minister has abused his power in the manner in which we allege in at least the last 50 years.

Lord Pannick puts the case for Gina Miller and others in the Supreme Court.

Government sources revealed that key elements of Boris Johnson’s secret Brexit plans have been shown to EU officials, but not handed over amid fears they will be leaked. It’s unlikely any detailed text will emerge until after Tory conference. Irish deputy PM Simon Coveney said he was still waiting for “a legally operable solution”.

The Supreme Court hearing on prorogation began with Lord Pannick arguing that the PM’s refusal to provide the court with a witness statement suggested he has not been telling the truth about his motives. Lord Keen, for the government, said it would comply (ie un-suspend parliament) if the case went against it. More submissions tomorrow and Thursday. It may be Monday until we get a ruling.

A new YouGov poll today showed that Boris Johnson was getting more popular, with his personal ratings now a net minus 16 points. Corbyn was a net minus 49 points. Swinson fared best with net minus 12 points.

Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) met for a marathon meeting. It discussed moves to abolish its centrist student wing, plus internal rule changes including plans for who should succeed Corbyn in an emergency. Tom Watson came under fire not attending, but he told me he had to be in West Bromwich for a final trigger ballot meeting.

A general election candidate for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has been forced to quit after HuffPost UK highlighted a string of “Islamophobic” messages he posted on social media.

David Cameron has said the backlash to his austerity programme was “hysterical”, and the Tory-led government should have cut public services deeper and earlier. In new extracts of his book in the Times, he said he should have “ripped the plaster off” earlier.

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