Voters dislike Jo Swinson the more they see her. That was the verdict of a poll this week revealing that even Remain voters are turning away from the Lib Dem leader, despite the party's fervent anti-Brexit pitch. In the summer, those asked about Swinson were apathetic: they didn’t know who she was. Now that she is more familiar, people are not impressed. For those who want Britain to stay in the EU – and even for the public generally – Swinson is not as popular as her party.
It’s a brave move then for the Lib Dems to put Swinson front and centre of their general election campaign. The party’s battle bus is emblazoned with a big picture of Swinson alongside the caption: ‘Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats’.
It’s the same story on the party’s manifesto, which came out today:
And it's also true of the Lib Dem website. ‘Be the first to hear about Jo’s plan,’ it says, urging people to sign up for the party's – or rather 'Jo's' – mailing list.
Of course, everyone knows the story of how the Tory campaign in 2017 ended in tears. The decision to put Theresa May at the centre of things was one of the main contributions to the party’s downfall at that election. Tories thought May was seen as ‘strong and stable’ by voters; the public thought otherwise. Put simply, the PM was not suited to the task of wooing the public. Even loyal Tory voters were put off from backing the party and stayed at home instead of voting. But while the Tories have learned from their mistakes, it's worth asking whether the Lib Dems are falling into the trap Theresa May did.
The party has made a fuss over Swinson’s exclusion from last night’s leaders’ debate on ITV. This is all part of the plan to ensure Swinson gets as much air time as possible. But her being left out could be a blessing in disguise for the party. When Swindon became Lib Dem leader only a few months ago, a third of people thought badly of her. Now the figure is closer to half.
Could Swinson’s appearance in the Sky News debate at the end of the month make those numbers worse for the party? Or might Swinson reverse that trend and win over voters?
The Lib Dems are banking everything on the latter, just as the Tories did in 2017. They might come to regret that decision come 13 December.