Why Jo Swinson Is Claiming She Is 'The UK's Next Prime Minister'

The Lib Dem leader's 'bicep kissing strategy' - and the reverse of usual political expectations management.

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Three-way switch

The final PMQs of this exhausted parliament gave a taster of the coming general election, with Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson slugging it out over NHS waiting lists and ‘privatisation’. Brexit barely got a look-in during the hour-long session, something Labour may hope will be repeated in the six weeks to polling day.

But as we were beginning to imagine just what an election TV debate would look like (Corbyn: “Our health service is in more danger than at any other time in its glorious history”, Johnson: “Labour will put up taxes on corporations, on people, on pensions and on businesses”), Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson got up and got in on the action.

It’s worth quoting her question in full: “At this general election, voters deserve better than a choice between the two tired old parties, and in the TV debates people deserve to hear from a leader who wants to stop Brexit and build a better future. So will the prime minister commit today to take part in those three-way debates, or is he going to run scared of debating with ‘a girly swot’?”

As a piece of political profiling, that single PMQ underlined all three of the key contrasting characteristics that Swinson wants to ram home in coming weeks: the other leaders are ‘old’ (she’s just 39), they back forms of Brexit (she’s a Revoke-and-Remainer) and they are both men (she’s the mother of pre-school children). ‘Definition’ is one of the most important assets in any campaign and the Lib Dem leader certainly has that.

Soon afterwards, Corbyn’s spokesman demanded a ‘head-to-head’ TV debate between him and Johnson, adding “there are only two people who can be prime minister at the end of this campaign’.

But that’s where Swinson begs to differ. At her party conference she made the audacious claim that she was ‘Britain’s next prime minister’. Crucially, that’s the message on the Lib Dem mailshot that dropped through letterboxes across the country overnight too, complete with glossy-magazine style cover photo (one of six pics of her in an eight-page leaflet).

‌She claimed on Wednesday that her party was “within a small swing of winning hundreds of seats”. I’ve not seen the polling evidence to back up this suggestion, but there is method in the apparent madness of bigging up your own hubris as a political weapon.

Swinson’s team call it the ‘bicep kissing strategy’, I’m told: make big, bold claims about how tremendously you’re going to do, in order to convince the public that it’s possible. Most politicians are told to under-promise and over-deliver. The Lib Dems believe that the more they shout they can win apparently unwinnable seats, the more the voters may give them a go. Unlike the big two parties, they are not trying to managing expectations downwards, they are trying to manage them upwards.

This also explains their apparently kamikaze decision to demand Brexit be reversed rather than just put to a referendum. Soon after the ‘revoke’ policy was unveiled, Ed Davey appeared on Question Time and suffered 20 minutes of audience hell. But afterwards, the party was delighted because it was 20 minutes of primetime airtime advertising how different they were.

The party knows both its revoke and Britain’s-next-PM messaging are risky. Yet just as with their ‘bollocks to Brexit’ message of the Euro elections, they think it can work better than the pundits believe. Add in the possibility of widespread tactical voting and you can see why Swinson is talking about plotting a route to No.10.

Don’t forget the Lib Dems pushed for a December election precisely because it means Brexit remains undone. If Johnson’s deal had passed, they would have been robbed of their main cause celebre and forced to outbid Corbyn on austerity (a tough call as one of its joint architects).

Of course, there is a genuine risk that the bold power play could backfire badly. If the Lib Dems take huge chunks out of Labour votes in scores of Labour-Tory marginals, they could split the Remain vote and deliver a big majority to Boris Johnson without him having to get a single extra vote. They could end up with lots of second places, while the victorious Conservative candidate breathes a sigh of relief. Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger may both suffer that fate, even in Remainiac London.

It’s also possible that plenty of Labour Remainers may see that danger for themselves, dismiss their dislike of Corbyn and back his party as the best chance of getting a referendum. The forced choice between a ‘Boris Brexit’ and Corbyn’s offer of a fresh vote may well be more effective than many assume.

Still, if those three-way debates ever do happen (and today the SNP made plain that at least a four-way was the minimum), Swinson promises to look and sound different to her rivals. She’s Scottish and state school educated unlike Corbyn and Johnson, whom she will paint as a political equivalent of the Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf. Those who say she has no right to claim she could be PM will themselves risk the whiff of sexism (why is ambition in men seen as normal, but seen as suspect in women?), the Libs believe.

There’s one more factor to take into account, though. In her bid to attract disillusioned ‘centrist’ voters, time is both against Swinson, and on her side. If Corbyn loses the next election, she loses her best asset (he is bound to be replaced by a young woman and one who may tack back to the centre).

Yet if the Lib Dems can indeed get lots of second places at this election, their biggest prize of all will be to get such a large share of the vote that they create a winning platform for the next general election after this one. And if there’s a hung parliament in 2019, that second election could come sooner than we all think in 2020. ‘Britain’s next leader of the Opposition’ is not a tagline for a leaflet. But once suspects Swinson would love the job nevertheless.

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Wednesday Cheat Sheet

Boris Johnson announced he would legislate to implement all the recommendations of the Moore-Bick report into the Grenfell Tower disaster. The report found that flammable cladding was the ‘principal’ reason for the 72 deaths.

The PM also said there would be national guidelines on fire evacuation and said it was ‘vital’ that London Fire Brigade learned the lessons. Labour’s David Lammy called for the resignation of LFB chief Dany Cotton.

Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson challenged Johnson to TV debates in the coming general election. Downing Street has so far refused to say if he would take part.‌

Corbyn’s spokesman said a Scottish independence referendum wouldn’t take place during “the formative years” of a Labour government. The Labour leader said ’at a later stage, obviously under the terms of devolution, if the Scottish Parliament demands it, then there could be, at a much later stage, a referendum.”

Former cabinet ministers David Lidington, Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan and Patrick McLoughlin were the latest MPs to announce they will not be standing at the next election. Rudd claimed the PM had asked her to stand as a Tory- but chief whip Mark Spencer told her she would not regain the Tory whip because she failed to give assurances she wouldn’t rebel again.

The Early Parliamentary General Election Bill was receiving its final stages in the House of Lords. Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg confirmed that the new Speaker election will take place as planned next Monday.

The Duchess of Sussex phoned Labour’s Holly Lynch to thank her and other MPs for writing a cross-party letter of solidarity in her battles with the media.

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