Boris Johnson was elected leader of Britain’s Conservative Party last Tuesday, became prime minister on Wednesday, then set about purging high-level leaders in his own party (one tabloid’s headline Thursday morning: “Night of the Blond Knives”). But Johnson’s government has only a three-seat majority in parliament, and his willingness to leave the European Union without an exit deal in place—a so-called no-deal Brexit—has put him at odds with many senior figures in his own party. Meanwhile, Brexit is less popular than ever: Surveys now regularly show that a majority of voters would rather stay in the EU, sometimes by double-digit margins.
That’s why Johnson’s election as Conservative head might not have even been the United Kingdom’s most consequential party leadership contest last week. That Monday, the staunchly pro-European Liberal Democrats elected Jo Swinson as their new leader. Swinson, at 39 the youngest major-party leader by over a decade, pledged to do “whatever it takes to stop Brexit.” Despite leading just the fourth-largest party in parliament, Swinson is remarkably well positioned to capitalize on backlash to Brexit and the Johnson-led government, as well as allegations of widespread institutional anti-Semitism within the leftist Labour Party. When she claimed to be not just the leader of her party but, in fact, “a candidate for prime minister,” it was not the laughable statement it might have been just a few months earlier.
The Liberal Democrats had been consigned to the electoral ossuary as recently as last winter, limping along at around 8 percent in most opinion polls, and discussing bringing in a celebrity leader to raise the party’s profile. Then, erstwhile Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations resulted in an unpopular deal that she was unable to push through parliament on three separate attempts, once losing by a stunning 230 votes. The right wing of May’s party, the Conservatives, began pledging to take the country out of the EU without a departure deal, an action economists think could prove catastrophic for many in the country (including industries such as agriculture and finance, which rely on trade with Europe and employ millions).
Almost overnight, everything changed for the Lib Dems. They scored a massive success in the country’s local elections in May, then, later that month, won the second-highest number of votes and seats in the European Parliament elections, pushing Labour into third place and the Conservatives into fifth. Now, recent polling shows the Lib Dems in second place nationally, close behind the Conservatives. One poll, taken just after both Johnson’s and Swinson’s elections, found their parties essentially tied, with Labour struggling in third.
Still, the Liberal Democrats have just twelve representatives in the 650-seat House of Commons. Johnson’s Conservative Party has 311, and Labour has 247. But it’s the Lib Dems that are in the best position to capitalize on the turmoil of Brexit. The party has promised to keep Britain in the EU. Johnson would take the country out of the bloc without a withdrawal agreement if he cannot renegotiate the exit deal (EU representatives have said the agreement is not up for renegotiation) and the Labour Party has taken a position so milquetoast and vague that not even veteran political journalists pretend to know where the party stands.
As British party leaders go, there could not be a clearer contrast. Johnson, 55, is a poster boy for the English establishment, educated at Oxford and, before that, Eton—an elite boarding school attended by one-third of prime ministers in the postwar era. Though he was born in New York (he renounced his American citizenship three years ago) and raised largely in Brussels, his cosmopolitan background has not stopped him from becoming one of the foremost advocates of British anti-internationalism.
Swinson, by contrast, attended state schools in a town she now represents in parliament, just outside Glasgow in central Scotland. Johnson has represented two separate parliamentary seats and had no notable prior connection with either. And while Johnson’s record of sexism is lengthy, Swinson has earned a reputation as an active feminist campaigner, notably promoting the right to maternity leave in parliament.
Swinson is also easy to tell apart from Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn, 70, has delayed and watered-down anti-racist reforms in his own party. He has also supported Brexit in the past. It’s a position that he has since walked back, but it still undermines his credibility with anti-Brexit voters. Corbyn’s positions are often those of “the old, crabbed, bitter, sectarian left,” to use the institutional socialist magazine the New Statesman’s words. Swinson’s Liberal Democrats have long been advocates of political and constitutional reform in Britain, leading the charge for eliminating the first-past-the-post electoral system and the scrapping or reforming of the unelected House of Lords. Labour, in contrast, is the primary beneficiary of the electoral system, which has historically been biased against the Lib Dems and other smaller parties. Swinson has the appeal of a progressive reformer; after four years of leading the Labour Party, it’s not clear that Corbyn can still marshal opposition to the Conservatives.
Swinson was first elected to parliament in 2005, representing East Dunbartonshire. At the time, she was the youngest member of parliament and the first-ever born in the 1980s. Later, when former Liberal Democrats leader and current Facebook executive Nick Clegg became deputy prime minister in a coalition with the Conservatives (then led by David Cameron), Swinson became a junior minister in government. But the Lib Dems were punished at the polls in 2015, largely because of unpopular austerity policies they’d helped the Conservatives implement. They lost 49 seats in Parliament, going from 57 to just eight. Swinson narrowly lost her constituency that year, but regained it in a snap election two years later, defeating the Scottish National Party candidate who had replaced her.
Balancing the good the Lib Dems achieved in government with the bad will be challenging for Swinson. Every gay person who can now marry in Britain in some ways has the party to thank for it. But plenty of indebted university students can also thank Lib Dems for their plight. To disown entirely their own record in government might well relegate the party to eternal protest vote status. To own up to it entirely would set the party’s platform back half a decade.
Swinson’s potential path to power would likely involve appeals to both Labour and Conservative voters. But most of the Lib Dems’ current targets are rural and suburban constituencies currently in the hands of Tory M.P.s, and to win them, Swinson will need to woo moderates scared off by Johnson and his embrace of a no-deal Brexit.
She might also need to build alliances with smaller parties. This Thursday, the rural Welsh parliamentary constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire will hold a by- (read: special) election. The seat’s sitting Conservative M.P. was recalled by his constituents after pleading guilty to claiming false parliamentary expenses; his party has decided to put him forward as its candidate in the new election anyway. Meanwhile, two other pro-EU parties—the Greens and Plaid Cymru, a left-wing group that supports Welsh independence—have declined to field candidates, backing the Lib Dems instead. The expected Lib Dem victory would buoy Swinson’s fledgling leadership, and if she can replicate such alliances in the future—including, for instance, two groups of independent M.P.s who split from Labour and the Conservatives to oppose Brexit—the electoral impact could be significant.
And then there are the disaffected Conservative M.P.s put off not just by Johnson’s stance on Brexit but by his vengeful firing of many of Theresa May’s cabinet ministers within hours of his move into 10 Downing Street. As many as six Conservative M.P.s are currently in discussions with the Lib Dems about defecting to the party, and many others have said they would vote to oust their own party from power if Johnson attempts to push through a no-deal Brexit. One independent former Conservative is already expected to join the party in September, The Guardian reported
The Conservative infighting makes Swinson’s job easier. When she said in her speech after winning her party’s leadership that “Britain deserves better than Boris Johnson,” she could not have hoped for stronger evidence out of the gate. Last week, when May addressed the House of Commons for the final time, Swinson rose to ask her “what advice she has for women across the country on how to deal with those men who think they could do a better job but are not prepared to do the actual work.” It’s not hard to tell who she was thinking of—and who she thinks might be able to do the job better.