Whilst the new Prime Minister gets the headlines for beating Jeremy Hunt, splashing £2.1bn on No-Deal prep and hiring an ex-chicken-man as adviser, there is another leader in town. Unsurprisingly, Jo Swinson’s ascension to leader of the Liberal Democrats took a back seat as her Conservative counterpart was announced, though she and her party will likely be the key-holders if an early general election is called. The Liberal Democrats’ stock has been rising since their excellent comeback performance at the European elections, and with the parliamentary arithmetic as it is, the Lib Dems could hold the power in a hung parliament. Jo Swinson’s energy and enthusiasm as new leader of the party could help to persuade voters that there is life for the party after the 2010 coalition, having been lambasted for their part in the patchwork government. What’s more, among the male-dominated Westminster elite, Swinson’s ability to appeal directly to middle-ground female voters could very well pull votes away from the main parties, as the latter becomes increasingly further from the centre of UK politics.
As the recent by-election victory in Brecon and Radnorshire has shown, the Remain pact with Plaid Cymru and the Green Party is alive and kicking. With a political landscape of pure divisiveness over Brexit, a pact like this could redouble Swinson’s popularity. The Lib Dems must continue to draw support from across party-lines, and continue to push the Remain agenda, maintaining a coherent policy for Remain supporters to get behind. With Corbyn’s Labour at odds over various party disagreements, and the incoherence of their Brexit policy, this period of UK politics should be a gaping opportunity for Swinson’s party to return to prominence. Unlike the Brexit Party, who have a small margin of the right-wing electorate to appeal to, the Lib Dems have the opportunity to pull in support from across the centre of UK politics. As well as using a Remain alliance to win party support, the ‘Swinson effect’ could be the first in a two-pronged attack on the centre of UK politics.
With both the Tories and Labour becoming more right and left-leaning respectively, centre-ground supporters could look to Swinson as a genuine alternative, especially female ones. Swinson, to the detriment of Corbyn and Johnson, could collect more than a handful of votes from these areas, and reclaim the centre as Lib Dem territory. As a prominent feminist, and having written two books which focus on equal power between men and women, Swinson is the ideal candidate for the increasingly-alienated, centrist female electorate. Through this channel she could lift her party beyond the electoral heights reached under the Clegg leadership. Labour’s shift to the left under Corbyn, and the ERG’s orchestration of Johnson’s Brexit policy, means that there is a widening gap in which Swinson can swoop. Former Blair aide Alastair Campbell is the most pertinent recent example of how the Lib Dems can benefit from Labour’s disarray. Having openly voted for the Lib Dems in the recent European election, Campbell was expelled from the Party, and this movement of centrist, New Labour supporters towards Swinson’s party demonstrates the vast electorate she can tap into, enhanced even further by her feminist outlook.
So what next for the Lib Dems? Whilst Swinson will not become outright leader of this country anytime soon, her ability to draw up support from the rapidly burgeoning centre means she will have a decisive say on who does. In order to sustain her party’s rise after the European and by-election, she needs to roll out innovative domestic policies such as definitive methods for tackling the housing crisis. Also on her list should be the maintenance of the Remain alliance, which helps propel the Liberal Democrats from the fringes to the forefront of UK politics. Finally, although Swinson has ruled out a coalition with Corbyn or Johnson, a clear opportunity in the future to form a coalition government could tempt her. In addition, the unstable parliamentary arithmetic and uneasy DUP support for the Conservative government, or a change in opposition party leadership could force her hand. With Westminster shrouded in uncertainty, Swinson may uncover a path that will lead her re-invigorated party back into government.