In Depth

Jo Swinson’s Andrew Neil interview: did the Lib Dem leader survive?

Party leader grilled on her support for austerity cuts

Jo Swinson has apologised for backing austerity policies during her years in the coalition government.

During a testing interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, the Liberal Democrat leader was repeatedly challenged over her voting record.

Neil began the interview with a cutting opener, asking: “Can we agree to conduct this interview on the basis you will not be the next prime minister?”

After Swinson replied that she was “very glad to be standing up for millions of people who want to stop Brexit”, Neil twisted the knife further, saying: “It’s not going well, is it? Why is it that the more voters get to know you, the less they like you? Your approval rating is even lower than Nigel Farage.”

He then confronted her over why the Liberal Democrats are vowing to roll back several austerity measures she voted for in the 2010-15 administration. Asked specifically about the bedroom tax, which she voted for nine times, Swinson said: “I am sorry that I did that. It was not the right policy. And we should have stopped it.”

She also admitted that while in the coalition government she backed the benefits cap, which limits the maximum benefits income a family can receive, and voted to allow private tendering in the NHS.

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“Clearly we didn’t win every battle against the Conservatives,” she said. “We fought many battles and we did win battles for more money for schools, for more money for the poorest pupils, for managing to cut tax for the lowest paid.

“But of course, of course there were things where we didn’t win those battles, and I’m sorry about that. It was not a Liberal Democrat government, it was a coalition government.”

The Daily Express called it a “car crash” interview, while The Times’s Patrick Kidd says Swinson’s “skirmish with Mr Neil” will not have drawn many viewers. Comparing it to the BBC’s sports output, he said: “Ms Swinson is the political equivalent of show jumping from Hickstead.”

Kidd adds: “She did not ride a flawless round, clipping a few of Mr Neil’s obstacles, but at least she showed up, which is more than the gelatinous prime minister deigns to do.”

The Independent’s John Rentoul praised the Lib Dem, saying: “Jo Swinson knows she will lose – but at least someone is being honest during this election.”

Despite the difficult questions, Swinson “showed that it is possible for a leader who believes what they are saying to survive a very tough grilling with their dignity intact”, says Isabel Hardman in The Spectator - but she is “clearly already preparing her defence in the election post-mortem”.

The Lib Dem leader said she would stay on as leader even if the party ended up with fewer than the 21 MPs with which they began the election campaign.

“I’m continuing as Liberal Democrat leader,” she said. “I’ve got a job to do and I’ve just been elected to do it.” 

But Hardman concludes that “others in her party might not be so confident of that assertion”.

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