General election 2019: Lib Dems shifting message to oust Johnson?

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

Media caption,
Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson is pressed on whether she'd block a Tory or Labour government

A few weeks ago, the Liberal Democrats were boldly suggesting that it was realistic for Jo Swinson to bid for No 10.

Anything was possible they claimed. Politics is fluid and changing. Millions of people feel the big parties are on two other planets and have let them down.

The Lib Dems stood ready to scoop up their angst, frustration and their votes.

And today? Well, the Lib Dem leader is still trying to press on with that line. But things have, by her own admission, changed a lot.

Ms Swinson admitted that the party has been squeezed - so, as things stand, it is a "big step" to imagine that she has a chance at No 10.

And, listen carefully, she is shifting her message to the country somewhat, to present herself as the person who can stop the Conservatives getting a majority.

Sources inside the party concede now that after the withdrawal of the Brexit Party in Conservative seats, what might have been a wildly unpredictable four-way race, has moved to a scrappy national two-way - with the SNP separately dominant in Scotland, and the third smaller UK-wide party eagerly trying to nibble at the margins to get in.

With Labour yet to make any big breakthrough in the campaign, the Lib Dems claim they are the ones who can nab seats from the Conservatives.

So Lib Dem votes in marginal seats are the ones that could prevent Johnson from a clear run at five years in office.

Hung parliament plans

The party's private hopes a few weeks ago of a massive increase in the number of seats has slipped a lot.

There is dry ice and confetti canons at their manifesto launch in a London nightclub. But certainly not the attempted razzmatazz of a few weeks back.

That's why, although we must always take the polls with buckets of salt, it is worth studying what the Lib Dems say about their attitude in the case of a hung parliament.

Ms Swinson has said again and again that Lib Dem votes would not prop up either a Tory or Labour government.

She believes that neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn is fit for office.

But although I asked her several times this afternoon whether she would actually block either of them forming a government if they offered her an EU referendum, she would not say.

To abstain or not to abstain

So what, you might wonder?

Well, of course there have been discussions in the party about exactly what to do if there is a hung parliament.

And I understand that includes the possibility that Lib Dem MPs might abstain on either Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson's Queen's speech if they promise another referendum.

In other words, Jo Swinson would not take her troops through the lobbies to back the programme of the Labour Party or the Tory Party if there is a hung Parliament. But they might abstain, allowing them potentially to form a government if they get their wish of another public vote on staying or leaving the EU.

We don't of course know what the result will be, and that is weeks away.

Even if there is a hung parliament, Swinson hasn't given up hope of there being a government of national unity after all, insisting: "We have to be more imaginative."

This is all of course highly hypothetical - but it is highly relevant too.