Swinson said a man in her position would probably have run. Next time, will she? Photo: PA

“She’s quite formidable”: Jo Swinson may yet become leader of the Lib Dems

Earlier this year, she declined to run for leadership of the Liberal Democrats. But insiders say her time may yet come
September 14, 2017

She was for years the “Baby of the House”—the youngest MP and the first person born in the 1980s to be elected to parliament. Her own baby was also the first to go through the Commons division lobby. Jo Swinson, the new Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, has never been a conventional politician. “She’s very modern,” says one colleague. “She hates all the male clubbiness of Westminster. And she certainly doesn’t suit the stereotype of the sandal-wearing Lib Dem. She’s a power dresser.”

A former member of the coalition government, this strong-willed Scot has also redefined political ambition at the age of 37. Most MPs are desperate to lead their party, but when Tim Farron resigned earlier this year, Swinson quickly ruled herself out of the leadership contest despite being the favourite to win. When colleagues questioned whether she was lacking in confidence, or letting down the feminist cause, she admitted that most men in her position would “run for leader like a shot,” but explained that she was simply refusing to conform. “Just because a man would do it doesn’t make it the right thing to do,” she said. “I have consistently fought against stereotypes and structures that impose a choice on someone.” But don’t mistake her decision for diffidence: she also pointed out that she had observed many male politicians “going for the promotion when they shouldn’t.”

Born in 1980, she grew up in Milngavie, a middle-class, affluent part of the area near Glasgow she now represents. Her parents were never particularly political—her mother is a primary school teacher and her father was in economic development—but she has always been fascinated by politics and loved debating at her comprehensive school. Swinson joined the Liberal Democrats at the age of 17, a decision that suggested a certain independence of mind, given most young people on the centre-left were much taken at this time by Tony Blair’s Labour Party.

Swinson studied Management at the LSE, before going on to work in marketing and PR for Viking FM, a Hull-based commercial radio station. Then, in 2005, she got her breakthrough—elected as MP for East Dunbartonshire at just 25. It was a new seat, carved out of others—none of which had a Lib Dem member—so she was no shoo-in. Vocal in her opposition to Labour’s proposals for identity cards, she quickly made her mark and was almost immediately promoted to the front bench. A staunch feminist, she has campaigned against the pressure put on young girls over body image and about gender stereotyping on television.

A close ally of Nick Clegg, Swinson was appointed to the coalition government as a junior minister in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2012. There—even as the government cut many services and benefits for families—she was able to concentrate on introducing shared parental leave and extend flexible working rights. She also clamped down on payday lenders, and increased penalties on employers failing to pay the minimum wage. Perhaps appropriately, given her ministerial responsibilities, it was her husband Duncan Hames—then also a Lib Dem MP—who carried their son Andrew through the lobbies in 2014 when he was six months old.

In the final months of the coalition, Clegg was keen to promote Swinson to the cabinet but backed away from the move because it would have meant demoting another senior Lib Dem. Though a strong supporter of her party’s power-sharing arrangement with the Conservatives, she has also said she would consider a coalition with Labour. “I’m perhaps not the most tribal of politicians,” she declared in 2013. “Working in a mature and adult way where you recognise what your shared goal is and you manage to work towards it… that is not something which I think would be particularly more difficult with Labour than it is with the Conservatives.”

She paid the price for her party’s alliance with the Tories in 2015, when she was defeated by the Scottish Nationalists amid the UK-wide Lib Dem purge. But this year, she won back her seat after a bitter fight that some say has left her slightly defensive and determined never to be caught out. “She’s quite formidable,” says one party insider. “Other Lib Dem MPs are pretty easygoing, but Jo always wants an absolutely massive briefing on everything. She’s incredibly thorough, demanding, ultra-professional and dedicated. She’s not prepared to wing it in the way other MPs are.”

Few in Westminster doubt that Swinson, who is now deputy leader and foreign affairs spokesperson, is now her party’s heir apparent. She is popular with the activists, and there have been rumours that Vince Cable has agreed to stand aside for her in a couple of years. This is denied by friends, who stress she did not run this time simply because the time did not feel right: “Jo is playing a longer game—she understands that the logistics of being leader with a young family, a seat up in Edinburgh and responsibilities in London, would be too difficult,” says one. But in a sign of her growing influence, Cable is said to be planning to operate as a double act with his younger deputy. “The idea is that they will be a duopoly,” says a senior Lib Dem strategist. It may not be long before the balance between them shifts.

Rachel Sylvester is a columnist for the Times