Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Liberal Democrats have grown accustomed over the years to press coverage that usually ignores their policies or belittles their party leader.

The traditional tabloid path – unless there is an incident that can be whipped up into a scandal – is to treat the Lib Dems as a footnote, meriting no more than a few sentences at the bottom of the page.

Jo Swinson has at least benefited from the recent moderation in language being used to challenge women in politics.

She has not been subjected to the full panoply of cruel jibes and crude headlines that were regularly deployed to ridicule her predecessors, Nick Clegg and the late Paddy Ashdown.

But whereas headline writers and her political opponents are on their guard to avoid sexist attacks, women diarists and columnists writing for the Tory press – sometimes known as the queens of mean – had no intention of expressing sisterly solidarity.

As Ms Swinson has moved centre stage with campaign speeches and appearances in televised debates, the snide bitchiness of earlier coverage has been amplified by sketch writers and cartoonists.

From the start of the campaign, Sarah Vine, wife of Michael Gove, was irritated by Ms Swinson’s “bossy, holier-than-thou election style” which was too “head-girly”. (Daily Mail, 20.11.2019)

“Up her own bottom, but not far enough so we can still hear her” was an anonymous quote used by Allison Pearson (Daily Telegraph, 20.11.2019) in justifying the headline, “The more we see her, the less we like her...”

Ms Swinson’s credibility was on the line when she spoke at the CBI conference, and then launched of the Lib Dems’ manifesto, two high-profile engagements that were an open invitation to the Tory commentariat to patronise her performance.

“Smiley Swinson gave the City fat cats the cheery nurse treatment” was Henry Deedes’ account (Daily Mail, 19.11.2019) of how “Auntie Jo” tried to woo the CBI.

Deedes was equally withering in his sketch on the Lib Dems’ “limp manifesto launch”. (Daily Mail, 21.11.2019).

The thrust of the headline over the paper’s main report – “The Lib Dem priorities? Legalise cannabis and tax frequent flyers” – was shared by the Daily Telegraph, “Swinson to raise £1.5bn by legalising cannabis”. (21.11.2019).

A manifesto pledge to decriminalise cannabis was a gift for Tory-supporting newspapers which used it to divert attention from the party’s key commitments to the electorate: “Remain bonus will help fund £60bn spending, say Lib Dems” (The Guardian, 21.11.2019); “The Lib Dem offer: Europe, green taxes and a pot of money”, (The Times, 21.11.2019)

Both the Sun and Daily Express followed their usual practice for indicating the irrelevance of the manifesto launch: five sentences near the bottom of page 8 sufficed for the Sun (“Jo ‘lurch left’ spree”) and the Daily Express managed three sentences (“Swinson’s labour deal”) at the bottom of page 9.

But not to be outdone, the Daily Express wheeled out its regular columnist Leo McKinstry to deliver the inevitable hatchet job, and without hesitation he answered the question posed by the headline, “What exactly is the point of Lib Dems leader Jo Swinson?” (21.11.2019)

His conclusion was that the Lib Dems had “sunk to new depths” under “her hectoring manner and her poor judgement”.

She came across as “a prim, inadequate, over-promoted deputy head-teacher of a primary school...Her immaturity is reflected in a host of poor decisions”.

Ms Swinson has faced the strongest attacks in the Daily Telegraph, anxious to warn off Conservative Remainers from being tempted to vote Liberal Democrat.

Full-page coverage of her first appearance up against Johnson and Corbyn in BBC Question Time had the headline, “Swinson savaged by both sides over vow to halt Brexit”, and was described as “a torrid time...as she struggled to get her message across”. (23.11.2019)

Like the other leaders, she has become the target of fake news. She insisted a bizarre tweet from a Brexit Party supporter claiming she had tortured squirrels was totally false.

An invented story succeeded in provoking a mini Twitter storm and attracted the interest of The Times’ cartoonist, Peter Brookes (21.11.2019)

The closing stages of the campaign will pose a challenge to the Tory tabloids in deciding how to respond should the prospect of tactical voting gather pace and indicate an acceleration in a swing to the Lib Dems.

Except for sure-fire targets like legalising cannabis or highlighting her “shrill hectoring tone” in televised debates, the Brexit press has largely been following the path of side-lining the Lib Dems in the belief that a two-horse race between Conservative and Labour is far better for Johnson

The critical time will be the final run-up to polling day and there might well come a moment when tabloids decide to resurrect some of the skeletons in the chequered history of previous Lib Dem leaders.

Illustrations: Daily Telegraph, 21.11.2019; Daily Mail, 19.11.2019; The Times, 21.11.2019