Midlands questions for Jo Swinson

Jo Swinson Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jo Swinson is having her first party conference since become Lib Dem leader

Parliament may have been controversially prorogued by Boris Johnson, but that doesn't mean our politics goes into suspended animation.

Far from it.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be interviewing each of our main Parliamentary party leaders in the run-up to their respective party conferences. For the Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson, next week's gathering in Bournemouth will be her first as party leader.

Her arrival in the top job has certainly coincided with an upswing in the party's fortunes, not least because it is seen as a safe haven for Remain voters switching from other, less avowedly Euro-enthusiastic parties. And not just voters: Margot James, until recently a government minister and Conservative MP for Stourbridge, has told the BBC she is thinking of voting Liberal Democrat and could see herself serving under Jo Swinson some day. Perhaps one or other of them should pick up the phone.

But there's no getting away from the fact that, with few exceptions, the Midlands has long been electorally stony ground for the third party.

So my interview begins with what may seem like an obvious question: after all, when has that ever stopped me in the past?!

"Exit from Brexit?"

In a region which registered a larger proportion of Leave votes than any other, the Liberal Democrats' "Exit from Brexit" mantra may prove hard to sell in the key Parliamentary seats.

Image copyright Google
Image caption The Lib Dem conference is being held at the Bournemouth International Centre

Generally, their prospects are considered to be strongest in Remain-supporting constituencies where the Lib Dems finished a strong second behind the Conservatives at the last election in 2017. But beyond Cheltenham, which the party held for over 20 years until 2015, where else?

The local council in next-door Cotswold constituency switched from Conservative to Liberal Democrat control in this year's local elections, presumably on a tide of Remain sentiment. But the Tory MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown has a 25,000 majority.

Another former Liberal Democrat stronghold, Solihull, held by Lorely (now Baroness) Burt for 10 years until 2015, now has a Green party official opposition on the local council and the Conservative MP there, Julian Knight, enjoys a 20,000 majority.

This, in turn, raises the question that the Remain vote could be split between the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and, potentially, the Independent Group for Change, all of whom are fishing in much the same pond.

Image caption Margot James has told the BBC she is thinking of voting Liberal Democrat and could see herself serving under Jo Swinson

During the run-up to last May's European Elections I chaired a studio discussion which included European Election candidates Phil Bennion for the Liberal Democrats and Ellie Chowns for the Green Party, both of whom went on to be elected to the European Parliament.

I clearly recollect a spat between the pair of them over which of their parties may, or may not, have offered some sort of election arrangement to the other. With a likely November general election apparently coming into view, this question may be even more as pressing now than it was then.

Final irony

One of the more extraordinary features of those dramatic early-September days at Westminster just before the prorogation was the surprising amount of time Jo Swinson spent with her fellow Opposition party leaders coordinating their tactics to block a No-Deal Brexit.

This has prompted a succession of Conservative ministers to point to what they see as the ultimate irony: the Opposition parties' collective and repeated refusal to back the deal presented to Parliament by Theresa May is one very big reason why No-Deal is looking more and more likely all the time.

A case of "on their heads be it", perhaps?

So much for the questions. To find out how Jo Swinson answers them, I suggest you join us for Sunday Politics Midlands on 15 September 2019 on BBC One in the West Midlands at the earlier time of 10.00 BST.

Joining me in the studio will be Andy Street, the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands; Ruth Smeeth, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North; and Phil Bennion, the Liberal Democrat MEP for the West Midlands.

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