Jo Swinson has apologised to the Liberal Democrats for a dismal election in which she lost her seat and the party slipped to 11 MPs, but said she did not regret fighting on a defiantly pro-remain platform.
Naming some of the MPs ejected as her party lost 10 of its pre-election tally of 21, including the Brexit spokesman, Tom Brake, and all the recent defectors from the Conservatives and Labour, Swinson said: “I’m so sorry I couldn’t get them re-elected.”
In a speech to party activists, Swinson said she had been an “unapologetic voice of remain in this election”. The stance prompted some criticism inside the Lib Dems, notably the pledge to revoke Brexit without a second referendum if the party won a majority.
“Obviously it hasn’t worked,” Swinson said. “And I, like you, am devastated about that. But I don’t regret trying.”
Castigating what she said was the failure of the Conservatives and Labour to tackle racism in their ranks, Swinson said she was fearful for the future: “Our country is in the grip of populism, with nationalism resurgent in all its forms.”
Swinson stepped down immediately as party leader, a job she took in July, after losing her East Dunbartonshire constituency to the Scottish National party by 149 votes, a seat she had regained in 2017.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem deputy leader, and Sal Brinton, its president, will take over as joint interim leaders before a leadership election in the new year.
In her speech, Swinson hinted strongly that she would like her successor to be a woman, naming and praising the party’s seven female MPs, three of them new. “I’m proud to have been the first woman to lead the Liberal Democrats, and even more proud that I know I won’t be the last,” she said.
The MP for Oxford West and Abingdon since 2017, and spokeswoman for education and for culture under Swinson, Moran seems a likely frontrunner. She had been set to challenge for the leadership in the summer, after Vince Cable stepped down, but opted not to.
A Lib Dem veteran – he has represented Kingston and Surbiton, in south-west London, since 1997 – Davey lost out to Swinson in the last leadership election and became deputy leader and Treasury spokesman. A key party figure who masterminded much of the 2019 manifesto, Davey may be seen as a potential interim leader to stabilise the party.
The home affairs spokeswoman under Swinson, Jardine is another relative newcomer to the Commons, representing Edinburgh West since 2017. The former BBC journalist is waiting to discover whether she has been elected party president, which may mean she does not want to pursue the leadership.
Another long-serving MP having been in the Commons since 2001, Carmichael is currently the chief whip and could be seen as a safe pair of hands. However, it is believed that Carmichael, who represents Orkney and Shetland, is unlikely to want the role.
After a buoyant autumn conference at which party insiders cited 80 seats as a likely minimum benchmark for an election, Swinson led the Lib Dems to their second-worst performance in the party’s 31-year modern history, better only than the slump from 57 to eight seats in 2015.
While the party had a significant gain in vote share on Thursday, up to 11.5% from the 7.4% in 2017, the new leader will face a postmortem into a campaign centred on courting remain-voting areas.
The Lib Dems lost all the defectors from other parties who had swelled their number of MPs to 21. Among those who fell short were the former Labour MPs Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger, and the ex-Conservative Sam Gyimah, who had been placed in London seats seen as winnable. Other former Tories such as Phillip Lee and Antoinette Sandbach also lost.
However, the party held on to some close-run seats in Scotland, and had some success in a handful of remain-minded seats. In Richmond Park, south-west London, Sarah Olney removed the Tory minister Zac Goldsmith.
In a speech during which her voice broke with emotion several times, Swinson warned that racism “has now become mainstream” in politics. She said: “Many people will look at the last few weeks, at these results, and be filled with dread about the future of our country. I understand. I am worried too.”
She added: “We have been true to ourselves, and true to our liberal values. And as your leader I have been true to myself, too. As a Scot, a Brit, a European. As a liberal, a humanist, a feminist. As a daughter, sister, wife, and a mum to two small kids.”
She ended by appealing to hope for “a way out of this nationalist surge”, saying: “Next week is the shortest day. We will see more light in the future. Join us for that journey, let’s explore the way together, with hope in our hearts.”
Several of the Lib Dems’ losses, like that of Swinson, were very close. In Sheffield Hallam, previously the seat of its former leader Nick Clegg, the party lost by 712 votes to Labour.
But elsewhere the Lib Dems were hampered by what seemed to be a lack of effective tactical voting, not least because in some seats it was not clear whether they or Labour were the better option for anti-Conservative locals.
In the north London seat of Finchley and Golders Green, Berger lost by more than 6,000 votes to the Tory incumbent, Mike Freer, with the third-placed Labour candidate polling more than 13,000 votes.
Similarly, in the Cities of London and Westminster seat, Umunna’s losing margin to the Conservatives, just under 4,000, was significantly less than the 11,000-plus won by Labour.
But in Kensington, where Gyimah had been touted by the Lib Dems as a likely winner, he came a fairly distant third, with his 9,000-plus votes contributing to Labour losing the seat by just 150 votes.