It’s conference season and first up; the Liberal Democrats.
A weekend that was filled with policy debates and cringe fringe events, began with another Conservative defection and ended with a rallying speech, the first for new leader Jo Swinson.
After much speculation that another MP was set to join the party, Sam Gyimah became the latest parliamentarian to join the Liberal Democrats. A string of defections has seen the party’s Westminster numbers rise from 12 MPs to 18. Gyimah joins ex-Labour MPs Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Angela Smith, as well as ex-Conservatives Sarah Wollaston and Phillip Lee.
Gyimah joined the Liberal Democrats after he lost the Conservative party whip, following his decision to vote against the party when supporting the so-called Benn Motion to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
Despite being generally well received from party members, there have been criticisms from his time as a Cabinet Minister, particularly his filibustering of an oppositional version of the Turing Bill – a bill which would have wiped clean the criminal records of thousands of gay men. It comes after the chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats resigned following the admittance of Phillip Lee, who abstained on key LGBT+ legislation and voted against allowing HIV positive migrants from coming to the UK.
Perhaps the biggest talking point of the conference, was the adoption of a new Brexit policy in the event of a general election.
The party maintains its support for a second referendum and in that circumstance, they would campaign for the UK to remain within the EU. However, with an election looming, it is now party policy that if the Party wins an election with a majority, they would immediately revoke Article 50, ultimately cancelling Brexit. This received a significant backlash, with many calling the policy illiberal and undemocratic. Swinson defended the position, remarking that the country needed to have the option to stop Brexit in the next election.
Other policy motions debated included providing provisions for young careers, deprivation of citizenship, education for everyone among others.
The weekend also saw a series of conference maiden speeches. The Sheffield Hallam parliamentary candidate who is hoping to regain the seat of former Leader Nick Clegg, introduced party Leader Swinson at the opening of conference. By-election winner Jane Dodds spoke for the first time as an MP and defector Chuka Umunna addressed conference criticising Corbyn’s Labour. Sir Vince Cable, Swinson’s predecessor also addressed conference for the last time as an MP, after announcing his intention earlier this month to stand down at the next election. Recently knighted Sir Norman Lamb will also be standing down.
New leader Jo Swinson brought the conference to an end on Tuesday with a speech setting out her ambition. In her speech, she paid tribute to former Leader Paddy Ashdown and her father. She reflected on the success that the party has seen in recent months – 16 MEPs, 7 new MPs and 700 new councilors. Brexit was naturally a key topic along with climate change, knife crime, mental health and the future of the party and country. Swinson outlined policies such as the introduction of a Green Investment Bank, a UK Citizens’ Climate Assembly, a wellbeing budget and of course the revocation of Article 50. She also took aim at Prime Minister Johnson and Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and stood in front of members as a candidate for Prime Minister.
If the polls are right, Swinson could hold the future of the country in the palm of her hands.