UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): You will remember it was the Liberal Democrats that were the first people who put a referendum on the agenda.
Jo Swinson (JS): I remember it, yes. I remember when Ed Davey led a walkout in Parliament, and I was left sitting on the bench, actually. I did all the Lisbon Treaty debates with Ed, bizarrely enough. which were incredibly boring. It is interesting how Europe became obviously a very fascinating, interesting issue, but when that was done it was so dull.
But, yes, we had big fights internally in the Lib Dems at that time about whether we should back a referendum. Basically, we recognised that there were elements of it being a popular thing to say, but when it looked like it might happen we ended up going, ‘Mmm, yes, no, not so sure.’ We weren’t saying we wanted a referendum in 2010. I think we had maybe said we wanted one in 2005.
UKICE: So there is a quote from one Jo Swinson, on 26 February 2008: ‘The Liberal Democrats would like to have a referendum on the major issue of whether we are in or out of Europe.’
JS: Yes, yes.
UKICE: So we were just wondering whether you thought that, as the first mainstream party to suggest there should be an in-out referendum, you let the genie out of the bottle.
JS: I don’t think so. I mean nobody took us very seriously. I think it was a policy of convenience, to be honest, but I remember the internal discussions, that basically it felt like it was safer to call for it, one of those things you didn’t actually want to happen. Those were the days, weren’t they? Perhaps in subsequent years we have developed a little bit more sophistication on being careful what you wish for.
So I don’t take responsibility, not least because we stopped a referendum happening in the five years that we were in government and made sure that it didn’t happen. It was when we were no longer in government that it happened. I mean it is interesting. I was shocked that you went back to 2010, but I think it is also interesting when you go, ‘When do you start this issue?’, right? Because you are talking about decades of analysis in newspapers, writing that everything is Europe’s fault, during government after government.
I think the coalition government did this, as well as the Labour government and probably the previous Conservative government. Where good stuff happened from Europe, it was claimed as an amazing thing the government had done – aren’t our beaches so much cleaner, etc. But when there was anything that was in any way controversial or unpopular, it was like, ‘Well, we have to do this because it is a European directive.’ So the blame for all the bad stuff or the less obviously popular stuff went to the EU, and the government took the credit when good things had come from Europe.
So yes I mean even by 2010, or by 2008 when that quote was being said, runaway Euroscepticism had just gone largely unchallenged in public debate for a long time.
UKICE: So after 2010, at what point did you realise that this is becoming a really big problem on the Conservative side?
JS: It is good when you say on the Conservative side because I don’t actually think this was such a big problem in the country. Actually, if you looked at where this was on voters’ interest lists, it was not high. When he started floating a referendum as red meat for his backbenchers, it was David Cameron all over. He would have a problem and he would try and do something to try and see off that problem, and then not think through several steps beyond.
And I find myself just being a little amused at Tory MPs today getting really annoyed that they get told to go and defend something, and then it all changes. I am just like, ‘Oh my goodness. I so remember that’, on so many different issues. One of the reasons why we had so many frustrating U-turns in government was because Cameron was quite agile in terms of changing his position, but not necessarily very thoughtful about what would happen several moves ahead.
UKICE: And were you given any kind of advance notice of his plans to call a referendum? Did you have any kind of inkling of those discussions or not?
JS: I mean Nick (Clegg) would be the best person to speak to. By that point I had been Nick’s PPS up until the September of 2012. I don’t think there had been anything that he discussed with me about this, but then I was a minister with Vince (Cable) in BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), and so it wouldn’t have been really across my particular radar.
I think I recall Nick trying to talk him out of it. But I don’t know if it was that specific speech or if it was later on. My instinct would be that Nick would have been aware that he was going to make such a speech, but I might be wrong, and it could have been a moment that was a bit explosive.
By that point, there was a no surprises rule, but obviously not a ‘if you are going to make a political speech, you need to get permission from your other coalition partner’ rule, because it doesn’t quite work like that. Because it was very clearly a Conservative policy. It wasn’t a coalition policy.
UKICE: Some people say that the 2011 AV referendum, which Matthew Elliott was involved in, gave the Vote Leave campaign the chance to hone their techniques. Do you buy that?
JS: The thing I remember from the 2011 referendum was that picture of a newborn baby, and ‘She needs a maternity unit NOT an alternative voting system’. Subtext: ‘Nick Clegg wants to kill babies’.
It was clearly a campaign that led to a huge amount of rancour in terms of the way it was personalised at Nick, but I mean obviously the way that the vote went in the end, two to one, the fact Labour were not going to campaign for it, meant on one side you have basically got some great constitutional reform organisations, the Greens, the Lib Dems and UKIP.
You have basically got those parties campaigning for a change, and you have got the Conservatives campaigning against it, Labour kind of neutral, and you don’t have major outlets of the media in its favour. So, yes, it wasn’t really going to fly, and I don’t know how difficult it was for them, really. I don’t know if it was that much of a challenge.
But we hadn’t really expected that kind of advert. I suppose you would have expected people to say, ‘Oh, this is a waste of money’, or, ‘We don’t need this.’ But to go really emotive like that, in a way is such a false proposition, right? It is just simply not true, that the NHS is less likely to get this funding if you have an alternative vote system. There is a total lack of logic there.
So I suppose that was the bit that perhaps was newer. Was that different to election campaigns? I don’t know how different it was. I mean even just in the 2010 election campaign, there was all this kerfuffle about the £6 billion jobs tax, right? As if £6 billion was the be-all and end-all. When you think about the actual numbers that we were talking about in terms of the hit to the economy and what was going to need to happen differently in tax and spend, £6bn is frankly neither here nor there, right? But that was what there was a big focus on.
So there has always been that slightly irrelevant or random stuff that gets elevated. But yes, that emotional pull thing, maybe they were testing it out.
UKICE: Moving towards the 2015 election, there are some suggestions that the Conservatives felt relatively safe putting their referendum pledge into their manifesto because they assumed that they would be in coalition with you afterwards and that you would demand that it was dropped. Was that your expectation, and did you have any discussions with them before that?
JS: So I think it was a fair expectation for them to assume that we wouldn’t have been up for having a referendum on this. I don’t think we were expecting to be in coalition negotiations necessarily. Having had the experience of 2010, we were preparing for it, and obviously one of the analyses you can give of the 2015 general election manifesto is that it was a document that was much more ready to be able to be used in negotiations. The thrust of the message was you weren’t going to get really what the public wanted, either with Labour or the Conservatives, and that the Liberal Democrat impact and influence was going to be positive whichever way.
I’m sceptical about how much appetite there would have been within the Liberal Democrat party for another coalition with the Conservatives, but I can see that the Conservatives didn’t think that they were going to get a majority. But again, it is another example of David Cameron thinking this solves a problem and having to deal with the consequence later. Because, actually, there was obviously always a risk of a Conservative majority – indeed that was the outcome Cameron was wanting.
UKICE: Would you have blocked him? If you had gone into negotiations, would you have said, ‘This is a red line. We can’t possibly allow you to hold this referendum’?
JS: Yes, yes. I feel pretty confident that we would have done, and I think if you speak to others, I think that would have been the outcome and that would have been the expectation. They had the James Wharton Private Member’s Bill. So they had wanted to do it and we had said no, and they had then tried to bring forward a Private Member’s Bill to do it.
A little bit like you had with Michael Moore’s bill for the legal 0.7% commitment on international aid, because we said that we should legislate for that and they were like, ‘Oh, we don’t have time.’ So it was like, ‘Oh, right, look, Michael Moore has got a Private Member’s Bill so we can’t possibly not accept this, can we?’
UKICE: One of the things that happened while you were in coalition was the Scottish independence referendum.
JS: Oh yes, it was while we were in coalition. Oh my God.
UKICE: We just wondered what your reflections were on that referendum, and whether David Cameron and the Remain campaign more generally drew the right lessons from it?
JS: No. Certainly not. I mean you mentioned 2011. For me, the parallel with Brexit was 2014, and particularly the parallel in terms of polarisation and this rise of nationalism. The 2014 campaign, was brutal, right? I mean in terms of what it unleashed in Scottish politics, which has always been not for the faint-hearted. But Scottish politics just became so unbelievably nasty, particularly the online debate about it.
It was quite instructive when an English politician would go on, say, Andrew Marr, and the Scottish referendum would come up. They would say something, and then they would suddenly get these cybernats – they don’t like that term, but they would get that online mass trolling. They would go, ‘Oh my goodness’, and you would go, ‘Yes, that is what my timeline is like the whole time.’
It was interesting because I had assumed that a lot of that was Labour people who were really anti-coalition, and then when the referendum came along it became clear that a huge amount of it was nationalist because they suddenly put these little avatars, like ‘Yes’ on their little Twitter photos, so it was really easy to spot whether somebody was a genuine disgruntled person or somebody that just basically was fundamentally opposed.
So that referendum, we started 2 to 1 ahead, and we ended up winning 55-45. I can’t remember the exact moment, but about a week or 10 days before polling day it looked like we weren’t going to win. Frankly, Gordon Brown was very instrumental in that very powerful speech that he gave. And the ‘Vow’, which was much mocked and maligned, but I think was really helpful and reassuring.
I found that Cameron was often quite tone deaf on the Scottish independence referendum but – and I think this was a really positive role that Lib Dems played in the coalition – we managed to try to get good advice to him and he did get quite good at listening to it. So there was, again, quite early on – I don’t know if it was 2013 or if it was early 2014 – an interview that he gave that just really hit the wrong tone, hit the wrong notes. After that, Mike Moore, who was Scottish Secretary, and Danny Alexander, who was obviously a member of the Quad, and there were therefore various Scottish Spads that we had as well, were able to try to give some good advice. I think by and large, actually, he ended up getting the tone much better until the day after the referendum.
I will never forget. I was sitting, having had no sleep, obviously, because I had been up all night for the results, and so was in a BBC studio at Pacific Quay in Glasgow. I was not on telly, happily, I was in a radio studio, and that was when Cameron came out and gave his little speech on the steps of Number 10.
I mean my face must have been a picture. Thank God I wasn’t on telly, because he just came out and he did this English nationalist piece. A point when, as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, frankly whatever party he was in, he ought to have been saying, ‘This is wonderful that Scotland has voted to stay’, ‘We are the United Kingdom’, ‘We are stronger’, lovely statesmanlike rhetoric and language. He suddenly goes straight into something which … if you are going to do it, do it at Conservative Party Conference when it is very brazenly political.
I was furious, and I was thinking, ‘He doesn’t have clearance for this. This is supposed to be a coalition where these lines are agreed. If Nick has agreed to this, then I am furious.’ I got out of the studio and got in the car. I was ringing Nick’s office and so on, just trying to work out what was going on.
Anyway, so first of all he was triumphalist in having won it, when actually I was thinking, ‘That was such a lucky escape that we managed to do it.’ But in terms of the lessons that needed to be learned, it was very obvious to me that in the Scottish referendum there was a very clear economic case that was made and it was you are stronger together.
When you have a single market where you don’t have trade barriers, you have got the same currency, in this case you have got the same regulations and so on, that was fine and we could make that economic case. But for me, in all of the public meetings that I did, that was never sufficient. So you also needed to have the emotional case. In the case of Scotland being in the UK that was our shared institutions, 300 years of history, it was the BBC, it was the NHS, it was the British Army, it was the monarchy with some people, the Queen. Even things like Big Ben, which is a landmark which people recognise, which they have some kind of sense of affinity with in a way that they just don’t have with the EU – they probably wouldn’t even recognise the Berlaymont in Brussels, right?
So you had all of that, and actually the strongest case that I would make on the emotional side would be just talking about families. I would talk about marrying an Englishman, my dad being a Londoner, my sisters-in-law being in Southampton and Northampton, my sister having her career starting in Manchester and my first niece being born there.
I was saying that is not unusual, that kind of story is right across Scotland, and people don’t really want to be erecting a border in-between their families. That emotional piece, and for different people it was different elements of that, really resonated and was just so essential because it was part of the story, it was the narrative, it was why we really felt like we wanted to be British as well as Scottish.
So I don’t think that lesson was at all learned well for 2016. In fact, I remember composing an email in, I think, the February or maybe the March of 2016 to the Stronger In campaign, just saying, ‘Look, I just think this is not emotional. This is the stuff that we learned. We need to be finding a way of making that argument…’. And it is harder, I grant you it is harder with the European thing because you don’t have those same buildings, you don’t have that same origin story. But you do have the 70 years of peace, you do have some elements and individuals and people which you can pull together.
I just think it was not done. It was assumed that it was the economics that won the Scottish referendum, and it was assumed that it is just the boring business voice that wins votes. I remember that launch with Stuart Rose and white man after white man after white man just talking about finance and numbers and nothing that was talking to the heart.
UKICE: Did you expect the 2016 referendum to be as divisive as it was?
JS: Well, I just remember everyone saying that 2016 was really divisive, and I was thinking, ‘Well, this isn’t as bad as it was in 2014.’ So I mean I was coming from a different spectrum, right? In a sense – and it sounds flippant, because I was absolutely devastated by the result in 2016, but it is true – I was surprised by the extent to which I was, actually, because it felt like there was something much deeper that was lost rather than just an individual vote or even a membership of an institution.
I knew when I was campaigning how strongly I felt about the Scottish referendum compared to the European one, because it was so much more bound up in my personal identity: my mum is Scottish, my dad was English, so it is just in my blood, right? So I think that, for many people in Scotland, the impact of the Scottish independence vote felt more directly connected to their lives, they felt more strongly about it, than they did about the European Union vote.
Although clearly 2016 became very divisive, and partly because it then became a proxy for other values and cultural positions, nonetheless I was coming at it from a position where things had been even more polarised and even more divisive. There are still families in Scotland where people don’t talk to each other because of how they voted differently in 2014.
UKICE: You have already said a bit about your frustrations with the Stronger In campaign. I just wondered, if the Liberal Democrats perhaps had been a larger parliamentary force, whether you might have had a bigger say in it? What did you think about the Stronger In campaign through the referendum?
JS: Well, I think there are a couple of things I would say. The first is the context of this. I wasn’t an MP, I had lost my seat in 2015, so I was basically trying to build my consulting business and write my book. So my campaigning was going and handing out leaflets and speaking to people, both in East Dunbartonshire, on the streets of Bearsden, and in London I would go out, leafleting sessions at Denmark Hill train station.
So that was my experience. It was much more as a grassroots activist, and it felt much less organised. It felt a bit hastily put together, which it was because the campaign was incredibly short.
This is my second point – that was another massive mistake that was made. You can argue that the 2014 campaign was far too long. The SNP got the majority in 2011, and it was 3-and-a-half years later that we had the referendum. So you basically had talk of nothing else but the constitution for all that time.
But with Brexit, it was basically a year after the Conservatives got the majority. Thinking back, you had that whole ridiculous renegotiation situation going on which wasn’t concluded until February 2016. That was the point at which Boris Johnson came out and backed Leave. So the whole thing was 3 or 4 months. There was no way that that was enough time to really go through all of the issues and the debate. We now say, ‘Well, goodness, the issues of Northern Ireland were raised very little.’ Well, that is because there wasn’t much debate at all.
As I say, I was building a consulting business, so I was out networking in the business community. I remember speaking to people who were saying that, although business was obviously really worried about Brexit, they were being advised, this was January time of 2016, not to start coming out and saying pro-European things. This was because the government didn’t want them to undermine the process for the renegotiation and undermine what the government was trying to do.
So the idea that you then, from a standing start in February, can build a pro-European movement and campaign when there have been decades of arguments in the other direction, largely unchallenged, particularly by the media…
The other flaw, I really think, was Cameron presenting the 2016 renegotiation as if that was how he was going to decide what to recommend, and that he wasn’t going to make up his mind until he had understood what was offered in that renegotiation. This led to the view that the value of the European Union could be reduced to what particular deal had been agreed on the welfare payments to Polish plumbers.
The whole concept that this was a very transactional thing, rather than something which was fundamentally a strategic question for the country and about where our future best lay. Was it with our closest and nearest neighbours in the rest of Europe where we could have much greater clout and where, with a still very powerful United States and a rising China in this world, we could have most influence and pursue our values?
That, to me, is just fundamentally not a decision that you are going to make on the basis of a particular summit in a particular February where you are talking about pretty minimal stuff. So, therefore, David Cameron couldn’t present it as a big picture future choice for the country. It was presented as a very transactional relationship, and I think that was a really significant mistake.
UKICE: Were you always worried, that the referendum could easily be lost?
JS: I couldn’t see how it could be won. Having had the experience of Scotland, as I say, where we started two to one ahead and where all the economic arguments were basically the same. As far as I could tell, the case was very similar for Scotland staying in the UK and the UK staying in the EU, which is incidentally why it is so inconsistent for the SNP to want to be in the EU and not in the UK and for the Tories to want the UK to be together but not to be in the EU.
Anyway, that inconsistency aside, the economic case was pretty straightforward, but the emotional case was very strong. I mean you could make the Braveheart case for Scotland as an emotional case, right? You could see how you could make that, but you had a very strong counter-case for the United Kingdom. But on the EU side, that emotional case, I mean I couldn’t even see how to create that case with the same degree of resonance as I did in the Scottish referendum. We weren’t starting two to one ahead, right? So I was just thinking, ‘How can this be won?’ Then the polls were actually quite positive and hopeful and so I did hope.
UKICE: Quite a few people have said that one of the problems was that it became an internal fight among Conservatives and David Cameron was too reluctant to go after Johnson and Gove and that was what was critical. Do you agree with that or do you think it was something more fundamental?
JS: I think when it is 52-48, it is one of those things where you can always say, ‘If this small thing had been done differently’, ‘If that small thing had been done differently.’ So maybe it is true. If they had done that bit of the campaign differently and he had gone after them, then, yes, maybe it would have been different.
But I do think that a lot of the die was cast a lot earlier than that in agreeing to have the referendum, in agreeing to have it and not at that point setting out to challenge his party. You know a bit like he did with the whole ‘hug a hoodie’ thing? Making the case for Conservatives being green, right? Whether you think that was genuine or otherwise he tried to take that case to his party, and I don’t feel like he took the same case to his party on Europe. So he was basically trying to buy them off but not really dealing with the underlying issue. Then, because he wasn’t presenting a strategic set of reasons, I think we started in a pretty vulnerable position.
UKICE: Do you think your concerns were shared by other Lib Dems at the time, or do you think because you were Scottish you realised the problem before they did?
JS: So I think the experience of 2014 certainly gave me a particular perspective. Of course, Alistair Carmichael was in parliament. I am sure he will have felt the same and will have been communicating that. But, yes, there is still a bizarre lack of interest in Scottish politics south of the border. So I think there will have been a lot of people for whom what had really just gone on in Scotland had slightly passed them by. They were like, ‘Oh, well, we got the right result.’ So yes.
UKICE: Once you got the result in, did you think that, ‘Actually, the people have spoken and we just have to accept this result, we are out’?
JS: Yes, actually. I was very bleak and despairing immediately after. I recall I invited friends round to the garden for … I think we called it a ‘Sour Grapes Party’. So we had some grape beverage and just it was quite therapeutic to be with people who were feeling the same as you were. I think on the Sunday we had that. And it was quite nice weather, it was very pleasant. But, yes, I mean I think my instinct was that it would just happen, and definitely my hope that it might not need to happen definitely came later.
Brexit negotiations and Liberal Democrat position, 2017-2019
UKICE: Well, let’s move on to that. When did it come? After 2017 election, you come back to Parliament. Was it before that or after that?
JS: So I think it was before that. By the 2017 election obviously a ‘people’s vote’ was our policy. There are many ‘what ifs’ in history. But I suppose my assumption with it being a close vote was that the Conservative government, not least because of what they had said in the referendum, would go for a customs union and a single market model, and they would reach out to people and try and bring the country together. You would then end up with a Brexit that, even if people didn’t like it, they felt yes, fair enough.
In a sense, therefore, it was the pursuit of something which was quite a departure from what had been talked about in the referendum campaign that started to create the space for saying, ‘Well, hang on, there needs to be a confirmation that that is what actually people want.’ Obviously, in 2017 the Lib Dem performance wasn’t such that it was like people are flocking, in the way that, interestingly, the SNP saw a big boost after the Scottish independence referendum.
That didn’t really happen to the Lib Dems, for whatever reason, in 2017. Obviously, we did start to see more of that later on but I think part of this was that, as I say, in Scotland on both sides people felt more strongly than in the EU debate. So you did have obviously some ardent Brexiters, and you have very ardent Europhiles. But there was a bigger proportion of the public in the Brexit vote who will have voted whatever way but not had the same identification with that vote.
UKICE: When you say you thought that you could end up with a single market and a customs union, if I were Theresa May I would be saying, ‘But I can’t do the single market because the one thing that is clear that people voted for in the referendum is to stop free movement and the EU says that is indivisible, and the one thing that Brexit supporters in my party really value is an independent trade policy, and that means I have got to be out of the customs union.’ Wasn’t the logic of that that the single market and customs union were off the cards?
JS: So I think this basically takes us to the fundamental contradiction of the Brexit vote, because in the Leave campaign lots of people who were supporting the Leave campaign were saying, ‘Well, no one is talking about leaving the single market.’ The single market, of course, which was greatly lauded by Margaret Thatcher of all people.
I maintain that it was not that people didn’t know what they were voting for, but that lots of people were voting for different things. So they voted Leave, and some of them were voting Leave because they wanted to be out of the EU but they still wanted to have that close trading relationship without trade barriers. That means being in a single market. I mean tariffs are important, but, actually, what really makes it easy for businesses is to have the same rules so that when you are producing something, one set of standards works in one country and it works in all of the other 27 countries in the EU.
So there were some people voting Leave who wanted that, and there were other people voting Leave who did want something that was very much an independent trade policy. I mean you basically had a coalition, if you like, of people voting who wanted contradictory things. The last four and a half years of British politics has been trying to figure out how to resolve some of those contradictions. I don’t believe it is possible ultimately to meet everything that was promised.
UKICE: When you got back into Parliament, Jo, Theresa May has gone to the country expecting a giant mandate and ends up in a hung Parliament. What did you expect to happen then.
JS: So immediately after I was elected, I was being re-elected but it is like being elected for the first time because you have got no infrastructure, no office. So there was an initial period where there was just a huge amount to be done.
What became clear very early on, and it wasn’t particularly on Brexit but it was at the Queen’s Speech vote that must have been the end of June or early July where the government were basically forced into a policy change on supporting women in Northern Ireland in terms of abortion care.
It really was a great example of how you could work cross-party to change things. Basically, if you could get opposition MPs pretty much lined up and get a few government MPs and backbenchers, then you could force the government to do things. So the cooperation in that Parliament was unprecedented in terms of what I had experienced before.
From my perspective I thought that was very exciting because I think that is how politics is better done. On Brexit, therefore, it opened up options. I mean there was still a majority of people who were elected on a platform of delivering Brexit, although personally there was a majority of people who had voted to remain.
So it was quite an interesting mix there. I was in quite a fortunate situation, as I both ardently wanted us to remain in the EU and I had stood on a manifesto that meant that I had a mandate from my electorate to argue for that position through having a subsequent vote.
The people who are ardent Brexiters had stood on a Tory manifesto, with a couple of exceptions in the Labour Party, obviously. They had made it very clear where they stood and had that coherence, if you like. Then there were quite a few people who were personally Remain who were very deeply worried for different reasons about what Brexit would mean. But, they either had a constituency that was strongly Leave or felt, because of the manifesto and their party loyalty, that that was challenging. So I think that is one of the reasons there was a lot of angst in Parliament during the course of that couple of years.
UKICE: Parliament was quite good at stopping the government delivering Brexit. Did you ever think there was a realistic prospect, in, say, the first half of 2019, that Parliament would actually be able at least to impose another version of Brexit, even if it couldn’t stop it? Was there any chance of softening what Theresa May was doing, or do you think that was never really an alternative?
JS: I think it could have been, and this was the interesting tussle that many people were having. Obviously, lots of people took the view that any Brexit would be damaging for the country and that the way to resolve it would be to have a people’s vote, given what was on offer was very different to what had been promised. You could have a people’s vote, and then you could at least have some confidence that what would be delivered would be genuinely what the public wanted.
Then there were other people who took the view that you could argue instead for a softer Brexit. So, to some degree, those two viewpoints were able to come together and work together because the part of the Venn diagram that always overlapped was that Parliament didn’t want a no deal Brexit. Which largely held, and obviously jumping ahead of the timeline, up until the Withdrawal Agreement Bill second reading, was passed at the end of October 2019. There was a kind of fantasy that no deal had been taken off the table. It had, if you took everyone at their word, but some of us took the view that you couldn’t necessarily take people at their word and that you still had this potential no deal cliff edge at the end of 2020.
At that point, the Conservatives who had been voting against no deal didn’t consider that no deal at the end of this year was sufficiently enough of a threat that they should still rebel against the government.
UKICE: So where were you on that? Was there any chance that you would have moderated your position towards a soft Brexit, had one been on offer?
JS: It is an interesting thought experiment, imagining you had got to the final point where that was ultimately the choice. But while the campaign for a people’s vote was gathering momentum, and there was a big march in March 2019, there was the petition with the 6 million signatures in favour of revoking Article 50 to remain in the EU. So it felt that the momentum and the energy was behind looking again at the whole issue.
Of course, the other thing about a soft Brexit is that it actually had very few friends. The Brexiters didn’t like it and the people who wanted to Remain didn’t like it. That was as true in Parliament as probably in much of the country – though it is harder to tell by the country because you are then relying on opinion polls and simple questions.
But, yes, it would have seemed obvious to me after the 2016 vote that a soft Brexit would have been the ‘Bringing the country together’ type position that I think would have been pretty unassailable in terms of public opinion.
I think clearly that was not going to be a comfortable position within the Conservative Party. Even if you had a country that was marginally in favour of a soft Brexit over remaining, you had a Conservative Party with many of the MPs in favour of a very hard, cut-all-ties type Brexit.
So, again, it is very easy to say, ‘Well, Theresa May could have done ‘x’’, although if she had pursued that strategy, to what extent would the Conservative MPs have let her remain in post?
UKICE: Did you ever see any point in the indicative votes?
JS: Yes. I think there was a point in them but, particularly when your electorate is MPs who do politics for a living and look at psephology and all that kind of stuff, so much is the tactics. It is a bit like when you have Conservative Party leadership contests. You have people who lose support from one round to the next, because, actually, MPs have backed somebody that they wanted somebody else to come behind, but they didn’t really want that person. It wasn’t as straightforward as everybody could just vote for all of the things that they were happy to vote for because it also had an impact on what potential solutions would be taken very seriously.
The design of how you do things is important. I would say this, wouldn’t I? But if you had done it using the single transferable vote, then that would have been obviously a better way of doing it.
UKICE: Theresa May argued in Florence that a soft Brexit wasn’t actually a sustainable position long term for a country like the UK, that the UK could never quite see itself as Norway. I wondered whether you agreed with her on that and that actually it was the worst of all worlds?
JS: Well, it wasn’t the worst of all worlds, right? Because we are about to embark on something that is much more approaching the worst of all worlds in terms of our future relationship with the EU. But I did have some sympathy and understand the point that says, ‘if you are going to be in the customs union and the single market, what is the point in leaving?’ I kind of get that, but I also just think, ‘Yes, what is the point in leaving?’
Yes, and I think this, again, just comes back to lots of contradictory things that were claimed in that campaign and that it was a pretty close vote. In election campaigns lots of contradictory things are claimed as well, but at the same time governments tend not to get held to every single thing that is in their manifesto because they are governing for a period of five years and some things will change.
You are then electing the government, whereas with this you are giving an instruction from the public but, basically, it was like a bit of an instruction on a computer programme where you have got a logic fault in it, so you end up going round and round in some kind of endless loop. That is basically what we did because you haven’t been able to make happen all the things that were set out.
UKICE: The Labour Party was beginning, to some extent, to fray here, and you get The Independent Group and Change UK. Did the Lib Dems make any attempt to get these people to come straight across to the Lib Dems?
JS: I was certainly having informal conversations, and Vince had conversations. I think they weren’t at that stage; they weren’t mentally in that space of coming to us, and I didn’t really feel that there was any point in trying to do a hard sell. It is really hard to leave a party that you have been in for anything from 15 to 40 or more years, and to then at the same time think about joining another party.
I know that some people have done it in the past directly, but I think in the end what happened was they had obviously been having discussions among themselves and with a much wider group, many of whom obviously didn’t make the move. So I think they felt there was a safety in numbers and a strength in numbers. Therefore that probably meant that it was going to be less likely that they would all decide to join another party because that is a much bigger step to take.
Then it happened quite quickly in the end. My understanding of the timing was that it had been planned for later and things became unbearable for Luciana (Berger), and so she was understandably very keen to go and so it happened in that February.
But, beyond that, we had obviously been working closely together on the People’s Vote campaign and in all of these different groups, and we kept in regular contact, having conversations and cups of tea, particularly at that point where people had left a party. I mean that type of thing makes people very vulnerable.
You get the whip document. Every week, the whip tells you what is going on in parliament, and you get that document from your whip’s office, right? What is going on and deciphering it all. That is not the kind of thing that is actually straightforward for an individual MP and their staff team to do. It is one of the reasons why it is one of those pooled services. So to be able to try and at least provide that information. In a similar way, actually, to when Martin Bell was an independent MP. The Lib Dem whips office provided him with information. It didn’t require him, obviously, to follow the Lib Dem whip, but it would at least mean that there was a basic foundational structure of support.
So we did that and then obviously the other thing, which is very relevant, is if you are thinking of defecting to a party, you are going to look at the strength of that party in the opinion polls and it is much less attractive to do that when you are at 6% of the polls compared to when you are at 20% of the polls.
UKICE: In this period you were talking about having chats with the people who left and joined Change UK. Were you having lots of conversations, particularly as the cross-party talks started between the Conservatives and Labour, with Keir Starmer and the Labour front bench?
JS: Yes. So I mean Tom Brake was doing that from a Lib Dem perspective as our Brexit spokesperson, so he had the conversations with Keir. Then there were all the different WhatsApp groups, which I mean sounds very flippant, but these were not just WhatsApp groups. These were groups of MPs, different permutations of parties, that communicated regularly on what recent research had come out, what recent developments had happened in the EU, what different people had said, even to the extent of, ‘There is a statement today from the Brexit secretary. Here are some relevant points’ and sharing that kind of stuff to make sure that there was quite a coordinated, concerted effort to scrutinise well.
Again, you would have people going out for dinner and having that very free, across party lines discussion and cooperation. Some of that, yes, it had different shades. So some of that ultimately resulted in the Benn Act and Yvette Cooper’s bill. And it was all the same people behind it, right?
Oliver Letwin would be a good example. He was a very straightforward person involved in these conversations, and I was much more involved once the Lib Dem leadership campaign was over, but he was very straightforward. He wanted a Brexit deal, but he was prepared to do whatever was required to prevent no deal. I think it is fair to say he didn’t have a huge amount of trust in the word of the Prime Minister, and wanted to make sure that it was legally tight, watertight, in terms of what the government could and couldn’t do. But he was always very open about the fact that he wanted a Brexit deal. So we cooperated on that basis.
Someone like Yvette Cooper was really not particularly interested in stopping Brexit, but again we had shared interest on some elements. So, yes, there wasn’t necessarily unity of purpose, but there was nonetheless still quite an ability to build up trust and work together where interests aligned.
UKICE: Was there ever a government of national unity WhatsApp group?
JS: Well, there was actually quite a lot of people that would have been up for it within the groups that were cooperating. The sticking point is well documented. It didn’t seem to matter. Whichever way you pointed out that the maths was not going to work with a Corbyn-led government of national unity, that point never really seemed to be properly internalised and digested. Or maybe it was, actually, and it just wasn’t in their interest to go down that route because they wanted Brexit to go away and be done and to talk about other things.
Leadership of the Liberal Democrats
UKICE: So can you just talk us through from when Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister at the end of July, and then we are on this slope with the government saying, ‘We will be definitely out by 31 October’. You have got the Benn Act, You have got the attempted prorogation and, as you said, this critical moment of the second reading of that Withdrawal Agreement Bill. The Lib Dems have gone from 6% to looking quite a major force again. As a player in that period, what was going through your mind.
JS: Okay. So as context, earlier in the year, when we were on 6% and we were having conversations with some of the people who joined TIG (The Independent Group), it was clear to me that the people who actually shared a fairly common set of, small ‘L’, liberal internationalist values were, and to some degree are, split among different political parties. Certainly in Parliament and probably also that is true in the public-at-large.
When one of the defining issues of the day – or the defining issue of the day – is that issue, then that obviously leads to some difficulties in terms of organising. I really felt, even back in 2017 when I first got re-elected, that there was a need to somehow bring these people together. Not necessarily in one party. I was quite open-minded to what forms that could and should take, but I was pretty clear that that cooperation needed to be there.
Now, the hung parliament actually provided quite a strong basis for cooperation to take place, and I do think that was genuinely positive. I thought, when TIG set up in February, it was a really positive development because it was disruptive. Both Labour and the Conservatives were quite divided on Brexit and therefore not really giving the leadership that was needed. The Conservatives were much less divided, but certainly that disruption felt like a really good thing and that the Lib Dems would have a part to play in how things would develop.
As I say, on some pragmatic basis we were already an established party so we could actually provide some practical help. When it came to things like local elections, we were the ones that had the thousands of activists around the country, the 2,000, then it went up to 2,500, councillors. Then, as it turned out, the European elections ended up being quite a test.
Obviously, we were fighting them hard, and I entirely understand why TIG, then Change UK, decided to fight those elections. Because ultimately, if you are going to try and create change with a new party when you have got a set of proportional elections where you are very united on the big issue, then why wouldn’t you go for that, right?
I think it was a really interesting experiment. There had been so many articles in which people said, ‘What we need is a new centre party’. As if centrism is a value anyway, which it isn’t. But people were saying that you needed there to be a new party in that space of politics and that was the problem with what was happening.
I was always pretty sceptical about that because, having spent 20 plus years in the Lib Dems, understanding the challenges of trying to win elections under first-past-the-post, the idea that you can set up a new party and just do a Macron … it is like well, there were a lot of things that a) went in his favour in terms of rivals dropping out and b) it was a Presidential election and he ended up in a run-off against the National Front.
That is a set of circumstances which isn’t going to be replicated in the UK. Nonetheless, I think it was helpful for that to be tested and obviously I think they got, what, 3% or something? Which could have made the difference if we hadn’t had that split vote in terms of a few more MEPs being elected who were anti-Brexit. But, largely, it was, I think, really valuable in demonstrating that, yes, that wasn’t going to be viable. Sometimes you have to try things and learn from them.
So that experience was obviously pivotal in the calculations that quite a few of those members of TIG, Change UK, made in terms of how they could best contribute to the cause of trying to stop Brexit and create a more progressive, optimistic, small ‘L’, liberal future.
Until that point, I hadn’t really assumed that the Liberal Democrats would be the vehicle for this type of change or this movement. But after the European elections it was interesting, because the Lib Dem leadership election was going on around the same time. I was planning my leadership campaign from February/March. The nominations for a Lib Dem leader basically happened just after European election polling day, and then we were straight into the leadership election contest for the next two months.
So during that time the prospect of the Liberal Democrats being that vehicle where people could gather just seemed a lot more obvious. Indeed, what was the alternative? Because this whole idea of a new party, well, even if somebody will believe that you ultimately need that, it wasn’t like that was going to get support after what had happened to Change UK.
So I was announced as leader of the Lib Dems the day before Boris Johnson was elected as leader of the Conservative Party. My initial challenge was that, my goodness, we need to raise loads of money. I don’t know what is coming in the next few months, it feels like we might get the momentum to get a people’s vote – in which case who is going to lead that campaign? The Liberal Democrats are going to have to be at the heart of it. Dissertations and research projects will be written on the internal politics of the People’s Vote campaign. But another reason why the Liberal Democrats needed to be stepping up at that point was as the strong focal point of leadership for that.
In order to do that, we would need significantly higher resources than we had. We had a headquarters that had been hollowed out. We had a financial deficit in terms of ongoing fundraising. So we needed to get loads more resources in terms of finance and people, and we needed to become that rallying point. So over the summer, as various MPs defected to us, that narrative continued.
At the same time you then had, I think it was during recess, the idea of proroguing Parliament. That was one of those things where just suddenly you couldn’t trust that the normal institutions would act as you would expect them to. That was why you had to get really creative when thinking about how you stopped no deal if the Conservatives say they are going to try and call a general election.
Yes, I mean you had, in early September, Jeremy Corbyn, quite up for giving an election at that point. We recognised that there was a real danger that they could call a general election, then decide to choose the date of the election after we would have left with no deal.
You could never have imagined Theresa May acting in that way, right? In fact, any former Prime Minister. It just wouldn’t have crossed your mind that they could act in such a way, but it was obviously entirely feasible that somebody that was talking about proroguing Parliament could then do that.
So a lot of energy had to go into coordinating people and making that work so that things stuck. People like Stephen Doughty were absolutely amazing, one of the unsung heroes of that time.
Then, obviously, we moved into September. We managed to avoid the threat of an election where we would have a no deal Brexit in the middle of it. We managed to basically tie the hands of the Prime Minister in terms of requesting an extension, and you had this real movement towards the idea of stopping Brexit. You had had the march in March; you had had 6 million signatures on the Revoke petition showing significant support for stopping Brexit. The Liberal Democrats had obviously been at the forefront of that campaign and our members had been champing at the bit to go for a more radical policy for some time, and we had just had an election campaign that was pretty successful, albeit under a different voting system, with the not-so-subtle strapline, ‘Bollocks to Brexit’.
So it didn’t really feel like being nuanced on the issue was possible, let alone whether it was desirable. Therefore, making a virtue of the clarity through a Revoke position made sense. When we passed that, there was a motion at the conference that was very overwhelmingly supported by Lib Dem members. Which, of course, in a very Lib Dem fashion, was actually a pretty carefully worded policy which highlighted that in the unlikely circumstances that a Liberal Democrat majority government was elected, that would be taken as a mandate for the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ party to stop Brexit.
So, yes, there have been various things written about it. I don’t subscribe to the view that the election result would have been drastically different if we didn’t have a Revoke policy. At the end of the day, people knew we wanted to stop Brexit. The Revoke policy made that very clear. I think we benefitted from the fact that some people that weren’t sure about where we stood, had it made crystal clear – because it is still astonishing, when you look at these polls, how much people understand the different parties’ policies. You still had a percentage of people thinking the Brexit Party wanted to stay in the EU or whatever. So it gave us that additional clarity. I don’t really think, for all that there was some pushback from people on the doorsteps, that there were people that we were seriously likely to get to vote for us in great numbers that didn’t do so as a result of that.
And then we were into suddenly the point where Boris Johnson gets his deal, which was obviously pivotal. But I say that because the coalition of people that had been able to amass enough votes in Parliament to defeat the government completely fractured at that point. So it held together for the Saturday sitting, before the Tuesday of the second reading. There was a Letwin motion, and it basically meant that the Withdrawal Agreement Bill would have to be passed, rather than just going ahead with a simple motion. So, in a sense, Parliament would have to agree a specific Brexit before it could happen.
That obviously didn’t take account of the fact that some people would then pass such a bill and then say that they didn’t know what they had voted for, but, anyway, that coalition held together on that Saturday. Then on the Tuesday, those Conservatives, there were about 20 of them – I can’t remember if it was 18 or 21 by that point because a few of them, Sam Gyimah and Phillip Lee and ultimately Antoinette Sandbach – came and joined the Lib Dems.
But basically that group of Conservatives at that point went back to voting voting with the government. That was the point at which the prospect of having a people’s vote just died. I know that some people in the Labour Party still hoped, but just where were the numbers coming from? Plus, there was a good chunk of Labour MPs that were never going to vote for it, right? Caroline Flint and Kate Hoey, etc. So, yes, at that point the people’s vote died.
2019 general election
UKICE: That was when you made the decision that we have to give the Prime Minister an election because that is our only chance of stopping Brexit?
JS: It wasn’t that night that we made it, but it was within three days.
UKICE: How tough a decision was that, and how much debate internally was there? Because, of course, in retrospect people have been quite critical about that decision, haven’t they?
JS: Yes. Some have, and it kind of depends what your essay question is, right? If your question is, ‘How do I maximise the number of Lib Dem MPs at the election?’, which some people argue should be the only thing that the leader of a party cares about, then frankly I think there would still have been an argument for it, that you could say that having an election on the platform of Brexit, where we had a very distinctive position, that there were still political reasons why that was a sensible risk to take.
But if your essay question was ‘Brexit is going to be really bad for the country, that is our genuine belief and we want to do everything that we can to have the option of staying in the EU, how can we stop Brexit?’, then that was literally the only game in town at that point.
Plus, and this is absolutely underappreciated, the timelines. Lots of people just assume that we had an extension. We didn’t have an extension to Article 50. I had been speaking to Macron’s adviser on Europe, and it was the French that were the sticking point. So the letter had gone on the Saturday, or the letters I think it was, without signatures, etc. right? That was the date by which they had to go, and the second reading was passed on the Tuesday. I am fairly sure that Brexit day was due to be the following Thursday. It was the 31st.
UKICE: And then government lost its timetable motion.
JS: So that was 9 days before, so we were on 31 minus 9, so the 22nd. We didn’t have the extension, and I spoke to Macron’s adviser. They were basically saying, ‘Well, we are really reluctant to grant an extension because what is going to be different? What is going to be different and how are we not just going to be here again in a couple of months? We are sick of this’, and that was the situation that they were describing.
So, how do you break that logjam? One way of doing it is you have a people’s vote. Basically, Parliament has never actually had the numbers for that. Even if you pursued the prospect of being able to get the numbers for that, which I think could have happened if you had those 20 Tories on board, you run the risk that you are not getting an extension.
In going into weeks of attrition and committee … it might not have been weeks because there was also the prospect that France could suggest that they would give a 4-week extension, which would take you through November but with a view to that being the final extension and basically giving the government time to pass the Bill but nothing else.
So, yes, then the option of having an election is the only way to stop Brexit.
I was absolutely certain of this, if nothing else. Parliament was going to do everything to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Therefore, if you are in the scenario where you are into committee stage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and you have got a deadline coming of a no deal Brexit, then those Labour MPs that voted in favour already on second reading, they are going to vote it through. They are going to make sure that bill passes to avoid a no deal.
So, yes, my judgement was that is where you would end up otherwise. Other people might have taken a different judgement. So we had two parliamentary party meetings on the phone. We discussed on the Friday night and then on the Saturday morning, liaising with other parties about calling an election. The SNP had been keen for weeks. I mean, as I say, back at the beginning of September we had had to pull Labour back from going for an election, and that had been quite difficult because of the risk of no deal.
UKICE: But didn’t it occur to you at any point of this that basically the government has been itching for an election all autumn, and if they can go for an election saying this is basically about honouring the referendum, that was exactly the election that they wanted, and you were just about to give it to them?
JS: Well, actually, I think the election that they wanted, I think Boris Johnson wanted to have a mandate, I think he wanted to fight Jeremy Corbyn, but I think he wanted to have an election having just delivered Brexit. I think that was his preferred general election, either on a no deal basis or with a deal.
My reading of the situation is that he wanted to get out without a deal, just a clean break, and then go to the country. He was prevented getting out without a deal by the cross-party efforts, through the Benn Act, to stop him doing that without parliamentary approval. So I think him having an election on a Brexit deal was his next favoured option.
I mean you look at these things in hindsight with the experience of what happened. But at that point, we had a Brexit Party which was decrying the deal and saying that it was a sell-out, so you didn’t, at that stage, have a united Brexit front. You had the Prime Minister arguing for this deal, he had to defend something that was specific rather than a unicorn, and you had six million people who had just signed a petition a few months earlier saying they wanted to stop Brexit.
So we can look at the election result, saying, ‘Oh, well, that is obviously the way it went.’ At the time it felt like it was a risk, but it was a calculated risk, and it didn’t feel like there was an option to stop Brexit any other way.
UKICE: At one point did you realise in the election campaign that in fact this gamble wasn’t going to pay off?
JS: It is a good question. I think the very early days of the election felt good, but it felt like it was hard to gather momentum. It is very hard to scale up your ambition in the middle of an election campaign, so you kind of have to go for it and then hope that you can gain some momentum.
Obviously, in 2010, although the ultimate result was that we lost seats, we had gained momentum during the campaign through the oxygen of having the TV debate. There were lots of different debates being planned, so that seemed like that was quite a good opportunity. We had a very distinctive position and offer.
Then, of course, there was the refusal to debate me, basically. ITV, although there was a court process, announced on the day before the judgement came out that even if we won the court process, the debate wouldn’t go ahead. That can only be due to the fact that the Prime Minister had refused to take part in a debate with me in it. Which maybe was just him learning a lesson from 2010, but that certainly had an impact.
Then I think the Brexit Party deal with the Conservatives was obviously very influential, because so much of trying to have this ambitious strategy was only going to be made possible if there was a Brexit side that was not entirely united.
We tried, as far as we could, to unite the Remain side, but for well-documented reasons the Labour Party was not united with the Remain side. As such a big player, that then meant that the scale of the rest of it … we did have agreement with Plaid, with the Greens. That was positive where it existed. But, yes, it didn’t have the same level of scale as what the Brexit side were able to do between the Brexit Party and the Conservatives.
Obviously it didn’t turn out how I wanted, but I don’t look back with loads of regrets. I stood up for what I think is right, I stood up for my values, and it didn’t work out. But if you only ever go for the safe option or you only ever go for what has been focus-grouped, then what is the point of being in politics, if it is not about trying to pursue the things you actually believe in?