Six things we learnt from Jo Swinson’s conference speech

The Lib Dem leader even parked her tanks on Caroline Lucas’s green lawn, declaring her support for a Green Investment Bank

John Rentoul
Tuesday 17 September 2019 17:35 BST
Jo Swinson: 'Today I am standing here as your candidate for prime minister'

1. She’s not a bad public speaker

She stuck closely to her text, but read it fluently from the prompter. She comes across better from the platform than in interviews, where she often seems indignant and too eager to contradict her interviewer.

The speech was well written, with a few jokes and some good lines. She said of Boris Johnson: “He claims he can negotiate a Brexit deal in a month. I wouldn’t hold out much hope; yesterday he failed to negotiate where to have a press conference.”

The speech was too long – party leaders’ conference speeches usually are – but she gave audience members the uplift for which they came, bringing them to their feet early on with her declaration: “There is no limit to my ambition for our party – and today I am standing here as your candidate for prime minister.”

2. She is equidistant from Johnson and Corbyn

She attacked Johnson for being sexist: “Boris Johnson’s insults of choice are rather revealing. Big girl’s blouse, girly swot. But let me tell you, conference, if he thinks being a woman is somehow a weakness, he’s about to find out: it is not.”

But then she lumped Jeremy Corbyn in “the collective forces of nationalism and populism” with Johnson and ​Nigel Farage. She said of Corbyn: “If he had campaigned to Remain in 2016 with half of the energy he put into the 2017 election, we might have seen a different result. Nigel Farage might be Brexit by name, but it is very clear that Jeremy Corbyn is Brexit by nature.”

3. But she stole Labour’s clothes

She pledged to “challenge vested interests and concentrations of power” and nicked the slogan of the Corbyn supporters’ group Momentum: “Imagine that a different world is possible.”

And she praised Jacinda Ardern, the Labour prime minister of New Zealand: “Thanks to her, the New Zealand government set out the world’s first wellbeing budget.”

4. And told Caroline Lucas to back off

After the Green MP accused her of imperilling democracy by proposing to cancel Brexit without another referendum, Swinson parked her tanks on Lucas’s green lawn, declaring that “my Liberal Democrat government will introduce climate risk reporting and create a new Green Investment Bank”.

She also entered the competitive auction to declare the earliest target date for net-zero carbon emissions. The government has announced 2050; Swinson said “2045 and earlier if possible” – with “a UK Citizens’ Climate Assembly to drive a national debate about how exactly we will reach net zero” – while the Green Party and Momentum want 2030.

And if it was simple-minded environmental slogans the delegates wanted, they got them: “As the placards say, there is no Planet B.”

5. She appealed to her party to lay off Phillip Lee

She had a clever passage in praise of openness and tolerance: “We cannot be satisfied with a place on the fringes of British politics, narrow and pure, small and irrelevant. Our job is to gather the forces of liberalism, and be the rallying point for change.”

For those in the party who are unhappy about admitting Phillip Lee, the Conservative defector who abstained on the same-sex marriage vote, she spelt it out: “We must be welcoming and inclusive, recognising the journey fellow travellers are on.”

6. She won’t apologise for trying to stop Brexit

She repeated the signature policy of the conference – revoking Article 50 without a further referendum – which has attracted a vast amount of free publicity. (At last, some Remainers are learning from the Leaver tactic in the 2016 referendum campaign of generating controversy that draws attention to their core argument.)

Given that there are some rough corners in a campaign to overturn the decision of the British people, she did well in presenting her party’s stand against “nationalism and populism” – “populism” of course being code for “opinions which are popular but with which the right-thinking sort of people disagree” – without going into any detail about how she might negotiate in a hung parliament, which is the most likely way in which the Lib Dems might shape the future.

So the conference rose to its feet happily to applaud her closing words: “We can change our politics, stop Brexit and win a brighter future.”

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