Liberal Democrat leadership: Contenders make pitches

By Nick Eardley
BBC political correspondent

Jo Swinson and Ed DaveyImage source, PA Media/Getty Images

Two leadership contenders with similar goals when it comes to Brexit, but different strategies about how to deliver them.

Two hopefuls wanting to win the support of party members obsessed with the referendum and convinced they need to offer a simple route out of the current impasse.

But no, it's not the Tory leadership race.

As Westminster focuses on who will be our next PM, the Liberal Democrats are choosing their next leader too.

On Wednesday, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey held a hustings for political journalists setting out their plans.

So what were their pitches?


Both candidates want to hold another referendum and to ultimately stop Brexit.

Ms Swinson said she would work with MPs across Parliament to build majority support for another public vote.

She predicted a number of Conservatives - including some in government - would ultimately support the call if left with the alternative of leaving the EU without a deal.

She told the BBC: "When faced with the prospect of a Boris Johnson prime minister trying to push through no deal, when they know how disastrous that is for our country, will they put the national interest ahead of their party interest?

"I think there are Conservative MPs who will do that and be prepared to do that by backing a people's vote."

But Ms Swinson played down the idea of a formal arrangement with Labour, describing the party's leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as a "Brexiteer", and saying she does not "envisage" anything beyond loosely working with MPs from other parties.

Mr Davey was even more scathing about Mr Corbyn, saying he does not want to see the Labour leader in power in any circumstances.

He doesn't believe Conservatives would be prepared to bring down a Tory government if it would lead to the Labour leader taking power.

So instead, he is offering the prospect of a cross-party government committed to holding another vote on Brexit.

This would come after a no confidence vote in the current administration - but before a general election - and he reckons it would need the backing of 25 to 30 Tories to get the go ahead.

Mr Davey thinks such a project should be led by a Labour backbencher, naming Yvette Cooper or Hilary Benn as potential PMs.

If it sounds far-fetched, it's because it is at the moment.

"I'm not suggesting everyone is jumping to this idea yet," said Mr Davey. "It will take some persuasion."

Lib Dem prospects

A few weeks ago, the position of Lib Dem leader looked more like a rebuilding job than anything else.

But after storming European election results, everyone in the party is far more optimistic.

Ms Swinson said she was excited about the future, while Mr Davey said the party had an "historic opportunity" to capitalise on.

Image caption,
The European elections last month saw significant Lib Dem gains

They are also hoping to tempt more MPs to join the party after Chuka Umunna became a member earlier this month.

Ms Swinson said: "I have and will continue to have private conversations.

"I'm keen to grow the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary party in a variety of ways."

Mr Davey agreed, adding: "We need to become a political home to pro-EU liberal Tories and pro-EU liberal and social democrat Labour MPs and voters."

The coalition hangover

Both candidates were ministers during the coalition government between 2010 and 2015, which saw controversial policies like the increase in tuition fees - often blamed for the disastrous Lib Dem general election result in 2015.

Mr Davey said he wanted to abolish austerity now, but did not regret the policies he supported when his party was in government.

"Any government in 2010 would have had to take tough decisions," he told reporters. "I'm not apologising for doing the responsible thing.

"Labour would have delivered austerity if they had been re-elected.

"But as the finances come under control... we do not need to take those measures we took in 2010."

Boris Johnson

Ms Swinson suggested the election of Boris Johnson as Tory leader could be an excellent recruiting tool for the Lib Dems.

She believes Mr Johnson would be disastrous as PM, but a "silver lining" would be that it would be good for her party.

Asked if she thought Mr Johnson was racist, she said: "I don't know, because I don't know what he thinks."

But, she added: "It's not acceptable for somebody in his position to be so careless with the use of language where we have a society where people are, day in, day out, abused and subject to discrimination because of the colour of their skin."