Jo Swinson will do anything to stop Brexit, but she won’t do that

Published by Chris Oestereich on

It finally happened. Backed into a corner by Boris Johnson’s no-deal machinations, Jeremy Corbyn came out swinging as he issued a letter calling for a “strictly time-limited temporary Government” that would bring together opposition parties and Remainer Tories. The first aim of doing so would be to take Boris Johnson down via a no-confidence vote before he could force a no-deal Brexit through. Corbyn’s coalition would then work together to secure an extension to Article 50 to ward off the looming no-deal outcome, and then call a general election that would offer the chance to begin to sort out the current mess.

Swinson takes a page out of Nick Clegg’s playbook.

Jo Swinson, the new leader of the Lib Dems, and thereby the likely linchpin of any such deal, recently stated that leaving the EU is like planning to burn your own house down. Upon her installation as the party’s leader in late July, she gave a victory speech in which she claimed: “We believe the UK’s best future is as members of the European Union, and that’s why as your leader I will do whatever it takes to stop Brexit.” 

Upon hearing Corbyn’s offer, Swinson dismissed the idea out of hand as she claimed that he could never pull it off. She then recommended a couple of other MPs, Ken Clarke and Harriet Harman, as people she could support in the caretaker MP role. The notable difference between those choices and Corbyn seemed to be that they are not Corbyn. Greens leader Caroline Lucas posted a video on Twitter asking Swinson to reconsider her position, and while the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon wanted to keep her options open, she echoed  Lucas’ call.  

While Swinson claimed Corbyn couldn’t win the necessary Tory votes, Tory MP Guto Bebb cast doubt on her belief as he stated, “I do think that those who have said that they will do anything necessary to stop the long term damage of a no-deal exit must take seriously this type of offer.” Bebb added, “A short-term Jeremy Corbyn government is less damaging than the generational damage that would be caused by a no-deal Brexit. Dominic Grieve, Caroline Spelman, Oliver Letwin, and former Tory Nick Boles have all stated their willingness to enter talks with Corbyn. 

A day after dismissing Corbyn’s proposal, Swinson fired off a letter to him in which claimed she did not believe his plan was viable. As evidence to her position, she cited on-the-record statements from at least 7 MPs that would not support Corbyn in a confidence vote. Swinson stated that this left him needing at least 8 Tory MPs to back his move as she added that she “would be interested to know whether” that many Conservative MPs had indicated that they would support his plan roughly 24 hours after he’d announced it.  

Swinson further noted that she was “ambitious for the Liberal Democrats, as you are for the Labour Party,” as she exhorted him to set aside partisan politics in light of the national crisis they were facing. She further claimed that she “would be happy and keen” to meet and discuss how their parties could work together to stop a no-deal exit and to see, “who else might be able to lead an emergency government.”

Swinson’s call to set aside partisan politics is an egregious partisan maneuver. She has been calling for the things that Corbyn has offered, but when they were, the response was basically. “But not like that!” She is trying to call the shots as a minority opposition leader — Labour has 247 seats, while the Lib Dems have 14 — holding the country hostage as it stands at the no-deal precipice.

Instead, she should be offering support to Corbyn if he can pull together the numbers. If she honestly wanted to set aside partisan politics, she could help him get there, while putting forth her offer of finding a leader with broad support as a fallback plan. If she were truly confident that Corbyn’s ‘candidacy’ was not viable, supporting him would leave her with the result she wanted while looking the part of a statesman.

Unfortunately, this is all about partisan politics. Swinson is clearly worried that a Corbyn-led transition government would set him up to win the next general election. It’s a reasonable fear given he’d be the one in charge as Parliament staved off disaster. But the story Swinson put forth as justification for her position is paper-thin. She needs to quickly come around before the maneuver comes to define her and the Lib Dems. They still need to live down the albatross of supporting the Tories in the coalition government that kicked off austerity.

Labour MP David Lammy responded to Swinson’s initial response to Corbyn’s offer thus,  “Whilst this country faces a constitutional crisis, Jo Swinson faces a simple choice: A Corbyn-caretaker government or a no-deal Brexit. It’s crunch time for the Lib Dems, and it’s crunch time for this country’s future.” 

It’s indeed crunch time. Swinson needs to recognize this and stop her dangerous game.

A nation’s collective future should outweigh a political party’s interests. Sadly, this truism is often left wanting. The threat of a strong-armed no-deal is a case where party over country is a path that risks calamity. Jo Swinson must fight for her constituents as part of the collective whole that is all Britons. Whether or not the opposition should stop Boris Johnson’s no-deal should not be answered conditionally. Swinson could look to her victory speech from July if she needs guidance on the subject.