How many second chances does a working mother get in her life?
It’s the question lots of women would dearly love to have answered, having backpedalled on their ambitions while their children were small. They’re gambling that turning down a promotion because it’s the wrong time for them personally doesn’t mean missing out for ever; that over the course of 40-odd years at work, a couple of years of treading water professionally isn’t the end of the world. But it’s a gamble all the same and that’s why some will be watching the Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson’s next move with interest.
When the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron stood down last summer, Swinson was the bookies’ favourite to succeed him. But, unexpectedly, she turned the idea down flat, saying that at 37 she had a few other things to do with her life first. Since then, she’s had a second baby – Gabriel made his debut in the House of Commons last week, aged 11 weeks, when his mum brought him into a debate on whether heavily pregnant MPs should be excused voting in person – but her speech opening the Liberal Democrats’ annual party conference this week marked her return to the frontline from what passes for maternity leave in politics. And now she has a difficult choice to make. The Lib Dems are heading for another leadership contest next year, with 75-year-old Vince Cable hinting he wants to step down after Brexit. Jo Swinson could get away with turning down the chance of promotion once; she probably can’t do it twice and still expect to be asked again.
In theory, the Lib Dems should be laughing all the way to the ballot box right now. They’re the only big national party wedded to a second vote on leaving EU, at a time when Brexit talks are starting to resemble a car crash in slow motion. If the next election is a straight fight between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson, then millions of people would probably be looking for a “none of the above” option. But instead of cleaning up, the Lib Dems are struggling to get into double figures in the polls, while half of Westminster talks over their heads about setting up a whole new centrist party as if one didn’t already exist.
Jo Swinson could get away with turning down the chance of promotion once; she probably can’t do it twice and still expect to be asked again
And while Cable hasn’t exactly set the world on fire during a largely invisible year in the job, that in some ways is the last of their problems. What’s striking about Swinson’s speech is that it was an attempt to be brutally honest about the elephant in the room, which is the reason why so many people still seemingly can’t bring themselves to vote Lib Dem no matter how dismayed they are by what else is on offer: the fact they’ve not yet been forgiven for going into coalition with David Cameron. Or, as Swinson put it: “Negotiating with the Conservatives meant compromise. And some of those compromises sucked.” With hindsight, she said, the Lib Dems should have fought harder against the bedroom tax, the hostile environment being created for migrants and NHS reforms, and they should have been more honest in the aftermath about the arguments they’d lost. If they want to brag about the successes they had in government, she warned, “We need to own the failures of it, too.”
Swinson needs to own some of them herself, of course. She may have been only a junior minister in the coalition government, but she was still a minister and she could always have resigned – or, like Farron, refused to serve – if she felt that strongly about what it was doing. It may even be that the coalition years have toxified the Lib Dem brand so badly that only a spectacular break with the past – like starting over with an Emmanuel Macron-style leader who hasn’t previously been in elected politics, never mind actually in the government – can save them.
If nothing else, however, Swinson has kickstarted a conversation that needed be had about why the middle has fallen out of politics. Her own moment may or may not have passed. But she’s clearly not going down without a fight.