Day 6

Move over Boris: Jo Swinson could be a 'kingmaker' in British politics

As polarization grows between the U.K.'s Conservative and Labour parties, Britain's new Liberal Democratic leader, Jo Swinson, is poised be a key player in the future of Brexit negotiations.

'She could decide who is the next prime minister,' says political reporter Adam Payne

Jo Swinson reacts after being announced on Monday as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats party in London, Britain. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

While Boris Johnson was being sworn in as British Prime Minister, Jo Swinson — the newly elected leader of Britain's Liberal Democratic party — was readying a motion for a vote of non-confidence in his leadership.

She was elected this week as leader of the Liberal Democrats in the U.K. She is the party's first female leader and the youngest leader, at 39, of a major political party in the country. 

Over the past year, the Liberal Democrats have grown in popularity. The party polled well in by-elections and placed second in the European democratic elections, above the Labour and Conservatives parties. 

Adam Payne, political reporter for Business Insider, says their popularity and campaign to stop Brexit could lead to more seats in parliament, and affect the course of the next election and Brexit negotiations. 

He told Day 6 guest host Nana aba Duncan that Swinson's leadership is going to be "a thorn in the side of Boris Johnson." 

Here's part of that conversation.

Britain's new Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves from the steps outside 10 Downing Street, London, Wednesday, July 24, 2019. Boris Johnson has replaced Theresa May as Prime Minister, following her resignation last month after Parliament repeatedly rejected the Brexit withdrawal agreement she struck with the European Union. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein) (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

Jo Swinson is already tabling a non confidence vote, making big moves in parliament, but who is she and how did she rise to power? 

She's been in the Liberal Democrats for a long time. She joined the party when she was 17 years of age and is now in her late thirties. When the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with David Cameron in 2010, she actually was given a junior job in that government. So that was her first test of government experience. Since then, she has become an increasingly senior position in the Liberal Democrats. 

She's very well respected across the House of Commons by people in other parties. She's someone, when you speak to people who are close to her, who's decisive likes to get things done. You ... referenced the no confidence motion she put down in basically the first or second day of her new job. She is going to be a thorn in the side of Boris Johnson. 

She's a woman who makes some hard lines. You know, the Liberal Democrats vowing to stop Brexit. But are they the only ones that are taking that clear stand?

No. There are a number of smaller parties who want to stop Brexit. You've got the Green Party, who have the same policy [and] the Scottish Nationalist Party, who have seats in Westminster. I guess you'd say of Liberal Democrats are the leading anti Brexit party. 

And, it's worth saying that after years of, kind of, languishing in the opinion polls at around nine or 10 percent, this year they've had a real resurgence. So they are now back, I guess, as a significant political force in this country and come the next election. The Liberal Democrats could be kingmakers come the next election.

You mentioned that the Liberal Democrats are polling higher than both the Conservative and Labour parties. Why is that exactly?

The Liberal Democrats are winning over remainers from the Labour Party and I guess remainers in the Conservative Party as well. 

The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson and the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, we have got the most polarised … party system, at least in my lifetime. You've got someone far to the left and someone, in Boris, who in some ways is far to the right. And when you've got that polarization, you leave a large space in the middle, where parties like the Liberal Democrats can thrive and grow.

And that is where they fall on the political spectrum isn't it?

Yeah, that's generally right.

Obviously in such turbulent political times. Trying to assign labels to things can be increasingly difficult. But if we were to map the British political spectrum you'd put the Labour Party on the left, especially now under Jeremy Corbyn, and you'd put the Conservative Party on the right, especially now it is drifting toward a policy of a hard Brexit and no-deal Brexit. And slap bang in the middle of those two parties, I think, or at least somewhere in that region, you would put the Liberal Democrats.

New leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson addresses the audience onstage at Proud Embankment on Monday in London, England. ( Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

With this uneasiness in Parliament, how could Jo Swinson leverage that and make herself a kingmaker in the Brexit negotiations?

I think we're going to have the general election very soon, perhaps, this calendar year. And if that w[ere] to happen, if the current opinion polls were to continue and translate into a general election results, i.e. Liberal Democrats, who have currently got 12 seats in the House of Commons, there could significantly increase, I think to somewhere even towards 100 seats in the House of Commons. And if they were to do that, or even get even close to doing that, they would be in a position similar to a position they found themselves in 2010, where they could form a government with the Conservatives or Labour. 

In 2010, they formed a formal coalition. I don't think we'll see that again. Now, we're more likely to see a more informal arrangement ... I think that's where Jo Swinson, I think she could be a kingmaker in the sense that she could decide who is the next prime minister. And by doing so, also secure what the Liberal Democrats have been campaigning for for a number of years now, which is another referendum which potentially could keep Britain in the European Union. 

So she could actually help to stop Brexit? 

Yes, absolutely. I mean there are lots of ifs and buts there, obviously. We're in such turbulent times where who knows what the result would be. But I think now, Jo Swinson with a resurgent Liberal Democrats, that the referendum is about parties red line. It's its USP, its unique selling point.

It's not going to form a government with anyone unless it is given that referendum. And if they do secure that referendum, then Jo Swinson ... has had a massive impact, not just on this parliament but on the history of the country potentially.

I don't see any reason why … the party which has 12 members of parliament at the moment, can't have a hundred members of parliament at the next election and a lot of that will be down to Jo Swinson's leadership.- Adam Payne, Politcal reporter for Business Insider

You mentioned these turbulent times. There's a lot of shine around this woman right now, so what does her rise say about the state of British politics at the moment? 

The Labour Party and the Conservative Party, who forever in this country have been the two main political parties, ... are both really struggling, not just in your opinion polls, in a superficial sense, but both parties are having existential crises in one way or another. 

When people are turning their backs on the Conservatives and Labour, they're looking for new options for new politicians, for new political parties. And when you've got someone like Jo Swinson, who's young, who's energetic, who's passionate, who when you see you on the TV screen she comes across well. She's got ideas, she's also well liked across the party. It's almost like a breath of fresh air. 

I don't see any reason why … the party which has 12 members of parliament at the moment, can't have 100 members of parliament at the next election and a lot of that will be down to Jo Swinson's leadership.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Adam Payne, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.

Written and produced by Ashley Fraser.


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