Jo Swinson: from Commons reject to wannabe prime minister – Telegraph.co.uk

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When Jo Swinson became the leader of the Liberal Democrats in July, it was clear that the long game she had been playing since initially entering Parliament in 2005 had finally paid off. 

As she became not only the party’s first female leader, but also its youngest, 39-year-old Ms Swinson declared war on Brexit. 

“I will do whatever it takes to stop Brexit,” she said, before firmly laying out her ambition to not only head up the Lib Dems, but lead the country. 

“I am ready to take my party into a general election and win it,” she said in a speech that drew comparisons with David Steel’s much-mocked 1981 call to Liberal MPs to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government!”

It is a far cry from where Ms Swinson found herself in 2015, when both she, as MP for East Dunbartonshire, and her husband, Duncan Hames, former Lib Dem MP for Chippenham, lost their seats. 

At the time of the defeat, Ms Swinson was not only an MP but also a minister – one of the few current Lib Dem MPs with experience of being in government as part of David Cameron’s coalition.

Jo Swinson is applauded by her husband (right)  after her victory in the leadership contest Credit: TOLGA AKMEN/AFP

Ms Swinson described the experience as “bruising”, citing the fact she lost her job on national television and all the “emotional” as well as “financial” things that go with it. 

A former cabinet minister told The Telegraph it was “It was a real test of resilience. They picked themselves up.”

She had started as a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Sir Vince Cable, who was then the business secretary. 

There followed a stint as PPS to Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister, before being appointed a junior minister in the Department of Business, focusing on employment relations. 

She was largely responsible for two pieces of social legislation, most notably Shared Parental Leave, which she credits as her big achievement and The Right to Request Flexible Working.

Ms Swinson was described as an “effective minister with close attention to detail”.

The ladder had officially been climbed. 

But MPs serve at the pleasure of the electorate and Ms Swinson’s ministerial success could not protect her from a surge of support for the SNP that saw her lose her seat and face an uncertain future. 

She used the time to write a book, Equal Power: And How You Can Make It Happen. A sort of handbook for both sexes, Ms Swinson sets out small steps society needs to take in order to achieve gender equality. 

She also drew inspiration from reading Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity, which explores unusual career changes. 

Born and raised in Scotland’s East Dunbartonshire, Ms Swinson attended a state school in the middle-class commuter town of Milngavie, a marked contrast to working-class Glasgow down the road. 

As a child she was involved with her school council, first writing to her local MP aged 10 and having joined the Lib Dems by 17.

She credited Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, as the person who inspired her to get into campaigning. 

Jo Swinson has hit the campaign trail hard  Credit: PA

To this day Ms Swinson keeps a signed copy of Dame Anita’s book, Business as Usual, in her parliamentary office. It speaks of the importance of business assuming a “moral leadership”, something Ms Swinson argued when she said she wanted to see “people at the heart of business”. 

Although admitting to smoking her “fair share of cannabis at university,” she graduated with a first class degree in management from the London School of Economics before unsuccessfully running against Labour’s John Prescott in Hull East, aged 21. 

There was a stab at the Scottish Parliament in 2003 before she finally secured her place in the House of Commons, two years later, at the age of 25.

In her maiden speech as the Baby of the House, a title she kept until July 2009, she said she was “delighted” several young MPs had entered the House. “It is a strength that the elected Members span a spectrum of 55 years in age,” she said.  

“I believe that a more representative House can help to make politics more relevant to the electorate we serve.”

She added that there was a “lack of faith in the political process and us politicians, to address the issues they care about”.

She married Mr Hames, who followed in Ms Swinson’s footsteps as a PPS to Nick Clegg, in 2011. 

Two years later the couple announced they were expecting their first child. It was at seven months pregnant when Ms Swinson found herself at the centre of an argument on whether it was sexist to offer a woman a seat, after she arrived late to Prime Minister’s Questions and was left standing for 15 minutes. 

After much debate Swinson tweeted her position, say that if she were to be offered a seat on the tube that night it was “welcome & definitely not sexist”. 

Their first child, Andrew, was born just before Christmas of 2013.

While on maternity leave Ms Swinson discovered a somewhat unusual way of getting her baby to sleep; watching parliamentary debates on TV. “It did seem to have a fairly soporific effect on my son,” she said. 

After becoming parents Mr Hames gave up his position as PPS in order to spend more time with his son, in order for Swinson to pursue her career. 

He previously told The Telegraph he did it so that “I could be a new dad while supporting Jo at the same time, without my constituents missing out”.  

It was after Ms Swinson became a mother that she argued for MPs to be allowed to bring babies into the Commons, calling the ban on such a practice “archaic”. 

“I hardly think it would be too much of a disruption,” she said at the time. “You can take a sword through there but you can’t take a baby.” 

A keen runner, in 2007 she completed her first marathon in Loch Ness, followed by the London Marathon in 2011 and then the Stirling Scottish Marathon in 2017, during the middle of the election campaign. 

After two years of Parliamentary exile following her 2015 defeat, she returned to Westminster at the June 2017 election, having fought for the same seat she lost two years previously 

She ran a clever campaign, focusing on the fact East Dunbartonshire voted both to Remain in Brexit (71.4% Remain) and that it should not be an independent country (61% voted no), and used the fact Nicola Sturgeon was calling for IndyRef2 to her advantage, winning the seat back from the SNP’s John Nicolson with a majority of 5,339.  

Although tipped as the next leader when Tim Farron resigned in June 2017, she chose instead to run as the party’s deputy leader under Sir Vince. 

As someone well accustomed to running 26.2miles, she likened politics to a marathon when justifying why, once back in Parliament, she ran for deputy leader, rather than leader. “Creating lasting political change is a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. 

Later that year, as women’s minister, she caused a stir over her demands to have Lord Rennard, who was investigated internally in 2014 over a number of sexual harassment claims, thrown out. 

She became strongly involved in the #MeToo movement and worked to strengthen rules on harassment in the party and in Parliament. In her book Swinson revealed how she had been the victim of sexual assault while at university. 

“He was about to do something horrendous and I managed to get him to stop. I told him, ‘If you make me, that’s rape,” she said.

In 2018 she became the first MP to bring a baby into the chamber during a debate. 

With her second child, Gabriel, strapped to her chest she debated giving proxy votes to politicians on maternity and paternity leave.  

As a local MP she earned a reputation, according to one former minister, as someone who “was always very well organised and conscientious”, but her sights were set on more. 

By March of the following year, when Sir Vince announced he was standing down, Swinson was finally ready to run for leader and she did so with Brexit at the heart of her campaign.

She promised to do “whatever it takes to stop Brexit” and secured 47,900 votes with 63 per cent of the vote. Her rival Sir Ed Davey came second with 28,021 votes.

Under her leadership the party has seen a number of defections, from the former Tory universities minister Sam Gyimah, to ex-Labour MPs Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger. A total of eight Labour and Tory MPs have defected to her party. 

However one former MP warned that the Lib Dems cannot “just be a depository of protest, and people frankly, who are just desperate to find a home as the other two parties race to the extremes”. 

A self proclaimed “girly swot”, a derogatory phrase used by Boris Johnson to describe former prime minister David Cameron, a  former political opponent described Ms Swinson as the “head girl who the teacher likes but the other kids aren’t so keen on”.

Nor is she renowned for her sense of humour. 

“She doesn’t get jokes,” they source added.

No more was this highlighted than when Ms Swinson was lost for words after recently being asked live on air if she was becoming too “grandiose” by presenting herself on election leaflets as “Britain’s next Prime Minister,” despite the fact that polling data consistently puts the Lib Dems behind Labour and the Tories.

Unable to laugh at herself, or make a quip about her ability to beat the odds, her response was robotic, relaying the same line that the country needs a “positive alternative”. 

However, the Lib Dems are playing a strategy of success breeds success and believe that only by talking about power can you make people believe what you strive for is possible. 

The Lib Dems key policy on revoking Article 50 was lambasted by a former MP as an “intellectually incoherent policy”, who added that Swinson was “going to have to up her game and be more intellectually consistent on policies like this and many of the other policies the party espouses”. 

Other policies include calling on police to halt the use of facial recognition, “unless and until” it can be used without infringing people’s privacy. 

They have also pledged to reduce knife crime, as well as improving hospitals and education and said that it would appoint a “happiness” minister to assess “well being” with every government policy if they were to come into power. 

Tactical voting has helped the party previously and saw the election of Jane Dodds in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election after the Green Party and Plaid Cymru agreed to stand down so that just one remain party appeared on the ballot paper.

However the alliance of Remain parties has been hit by a grassroots backlash  with some Lib Dem candidates having rejected the national parties’ pact and instead are either backing Labour against the Tories or refusing demands by their leadership to make way for their chosen Remain candidate.

Tim Walker, the Lib Dem candidate in the Labour-held marginal Canterbury announced he would be stepping down and would not challenge the Remain supporting incumbent Rosie Duffield.

Having already ruled out forming a coalition with Boris Johnson, Ms Swinson also ruled out going into a coalition with Labour, saying she would “absolutely categorically” not work with Jeremy Corbyn, even if he were to offer another Brexit referendum. 

Yet for Ms Swinson to become Prime Minister the Lib Dems would need to elect 306 more MPs than the 20 they currently have.

As she continues to campaign in the General Election, she predicts there will be more defections to her party if the Lib Dems win big come December 12.

“I have had MPs from both of those parties say to me that I would be a better prime minister than Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn,” she recently announced on her campaign bus. 

The bookies seem to disagree, however, giving her odds of just 50/1 to win the most seats on Dec 12.

This article originally appeared here in https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/0/jo-swinson-lib-dems-profile/

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