by Steve Beasant on 22 July, 2019
*Please check against delivery*
Thank you all so much.
I am delighted, honoured, absolutely over the moon to stand before you as the leader of the Liberal Democrats.
And as the first woman to lead our party.
I joined this party when I was 17. And over the last twenty two years, through all the ups and downs, the Liberal Democrats have felt like a family to me.
Conferences, campaigns. By-elections from Brent to Brecon.
Twelve years as an MP, three years as a Minister.
Losing my seat. Winning it back again. And now standing here, as your leader.
Ready, for the fight of our lives. You have put your trust in me not only to lead our party, but also to lead and grow the bigger, open, liberal movement that our country so desperately needs.
There are those out there who think liberalism has had its day, that it is somehow “obsolete”.
But when I think of all the amazing people I met on the campaign trail and when I look around this room, I can feel the energy, the passion and the determination to fight for our values. Liberalism is alive and thriving.
In the face of nationalism, populism, the catastrophe of Brexit.
The two old parties have failed.
Our party has been clear on Brexit from day one.
We believe the UK’s best future is as members of the European Union, and that’s why, as your leader, I will do whatever it takes to Stop Brexit.
It’s the Liberal Democrats who can lead the renewal our country needs. Together, we can build a better future.
So, thank you for joining me – whether you are a lifelong Lib Dem or you are joining us for the first time today.
I couldn’t have won this race without the love and support of Duncan, and my mum, or without the pure joy that Andrew and Gabriel bring me. And not a day went by on the campaign that I didn’t think about my dad. He’d have loved today.
I want to thank my incredible campaign team and the many, many volunteers who have helped us over the last few weeks and months. And I want to thank my team in Westminster and in East Dunbartonshire.
This is your victory too – it simply wouldn’t have been possible without all of you.
We all know that running elections is a challenging business, so thank you to the returning officer and the staff at HQ who helped this election run smoothly – not least while fighting two Parliamentary by-elections!
And I also want to thank Ed.
Campaigns are hard. Constant scrutiny. Constant pressure. Endless travel. Endless hustings! So much time away from loved ones. I know Ed and I have both felt this, as we have toured the country from Aberdeen to Plymouth, and everywhere in between.
Ed has carried himself with grace throughout – and never lost his passion, nor his sense of humour.
I have a huge amount of respect for Ed – he was an exceptional minister in Government, and his environmental record is second to none. We have worked together for years and we agree on most things – which, I admit, may not have always made it the most exciting contest. Ed is a friend, and I am proud that we have both run clean campaigns, focused on the issues that really matter.
Ed is a great talent for our party, and I can assure you that he will be absolutely central to our team.
When I decided to stand for the leadership, I did so thinking the challenge facing our party would be a very different one. We were stubbornly on around 8% in the polls. New parties were springing up, courting Lib Dem votes. It seemed that the first task I would face as leader would be to ensure our very survival.
But what a turnaround!
Our best set of local elections ever. More MEPs than ever before. Opinion polls that put us in first or second place.
The Liberal Democrats are winning again.
For that, I pay tribute to my two most immediate predecessors: Tim for taking that brave decision in the wake of the referendum to say unequivocally that we are the party of Remain.
And Vince for your leadership that has brought about our revival, for being the voice of reason in these unreasonable times. Vince, you have served our party and our country with distinction for decades. From your sage warnings before the financial crash, to your work rebuilding our economy as Business Secretary, you have been a constant source of wisdom. And as Leader of our party you have led a transformation in our fortunes. Thank you so much.
I know that I have some pretty big shoes to fill – whether that’s Vince’s ballroom shoes, or Ming Campbell’s Olympic running spikes.
Or Nick Clegg, who put the country first at a time of national crisis and showed that Liberal Democrats can make a real difference when we take power and put our principles into practice.
Paddy Ashdown, who took us from an asterisk in the opinion polls to a credible political force. And Charles Kennedy, who was shouted down in Parliament for his principled opposition to the Iraq war, and whose sincerity endeared him to millions.
And how much we all miss both Paddy and Charles today.
When Theresa May called the general election in 2017, I knew in a heartbeat I had to stand and win East Dunbartonshire again.
People had expressed their shock about the division and nastiness unleashed by the 2016 referendum, but sadly, I had seen it already.
In 2014, Scotland’s independence referendum heralded a new politics, and not in a good way.
Sandra, one of my local members, had a brick thrown through her window, which displayed a pro-UK poster. On the campaign trail, an elderly woman pulled up her coat sleeve to show the pro-UK campaign sticker on the inside of her wrist – such was her fear of wearing it on her jacket. A mob of hundreds outside the BBC, demanding Nick Robinson be sacked. Twitter trolls, fake news, demonising journalists, we saw it in Scotland first.
And since then, that harsh, hostile politics has become the new normal.
On 24 June 2016, I woke to that awful news that Leave had won the referendum. I turned on the TV and saw Nigel Farage, smiling smugly out of the screen, and I’ll never forget what he said – he boasted that they had won ‘without a bullet being fired’.
I just felt sick. Just eight days earlier, Jo Cox had been shot and stabbed to death, just for standing up for what she believed in.
Crass, insensitive. Farage just didn’t care. But we should not be surprised. This is the man who stood in front of that Breaking Point poster, deliberately designed to stoke division, fear and hatred in our communities.
And I felt so gutted about the result. Not about the specifics of this or that EU institution. This was about who we are as a country.
It feels like our liberal values are under attack.
We champion freedom – but Brexit will mean the next generation is less free to live, work and love across Europe.
We value openness – but Britain is in retreat, pulling up the drawbridge.
We cherish equality, so that every individual can thrive: whoever they are, whatever their background, however they worship. But this is threatened too – that shocking picture of those gay women, bloodied, attacked on a bus. And the rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, in the heart of British politics.
Of course this is not confined to the UK.
Trump’s attack last week on four members of Congress, all women of colour, started with him deploying the textbook racist ‘go home’ message. By the end of the week, we saw thousands of people whipped into fervour at a rally, chanting “Send her back”.
Simply sickening, chilling. Echoes of a history we must not repeat.
Ilhan Omar is a strong woman. She will not be cowed. But my heart breaks: for every immigrant who feels less safe, for every little girl of colour who feels afraid, for every person who feels less welcome in their own country.
And I rage when Boris Johnson is more interested in sucking up to Donald Trump, than standing up for British values of decency, equality, and respect.
Tomorrow, we expect Boris Johnson will take the keys to Number 10 – but he has shown time and time again that he isn’t fit to be Prime Minister.
Boris Johnson has only ever cared about Boris Johnson. Just ask Sir Kim Darroch or Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Whether it is throwing people under the bus or writing a lie on the side of one: Britain deserves better than Boris Johnson.
And as for Corbyn’s Labour, I’ll make this quick. Any party that can’t decide where it stands on the biggest issue facing our country in generations, doesn’t deserve my time, and doesn’t deserve your vote.
We need a Prime Minister who will rise to the challenges we face, not hide away from them.
So I stand before you today, not as just as the leader of the Liberal Democrats, but as a candidate for Prime Minister.
There is no limit to my ambition for our party and for our movement.
I am ready to take our party into a general election and win it.
And, if we want to be the party of government, we need to speak to the whole country, no matter how people voted three years ago.
We need to reach communities from Norfolk to Newport, St Ives to Shetland, Gloucester to Gateshead.
We need to start by being frank about what is going wrong – because the system we have isn’t working for people or for our planet.
If you work hard and play by the rules, you should expect to earn a good wage, have a roof over your head and food on the table – that’s the social contract, and in the UK today it is fundamentally broken.
We have families where both parents are working full-time on the so-called National Living Wage but who can’t provide the basics for their children – I’m talking about food, school uniforms, a warm home.
And a planet that is at breaking point. We are the last generation who can act to stop catastrophic climate change, and yet the government is failing to take the urgent action we need.
In the face of these challenges, it shouldn’t surprise us that people are attracted to the simple soundbites of Farage and Johnson – no matter how divisive, no matter how far removed from reality.
If we want to defeat nationalism and populism, we need to give people an alternative vision for a richer, greener, safer and more loving country.
Because when all that Farage and Johnson can offer is hate, we should give people hope.
And our liberal movement to take on nationalism and populism must be inclusive.
At one hustings, someone accused me of being a feminist first, and a liberal second.
I answered how can you be a liberal, if you are not a feminist?
You are not a liberal, if you do not recognise and unpick the structural inequalities in society that hold so many people back.
As liberals, we want every individual to achieve their potential – and we are kidding ourselves if we think our society is a meritocracy.
So I say to you, if you are tired of a politics that doesn’t include people like you, whether that’s because of your gender, disability or the colour of your skin, your accent, age, or who you love – then join us.
This is a historic moment for our party. A moment of change.
And the urgency of this moment in our country’s history needs us to think and act even bigger.
Whether it’s Brexit or the climate crisis, we don’t have the luxury to wait fifteen or twenty years for us to rebuild our seats in Parliament.
We need to work with others, in whatever form or shape, to keep growing that liberal movement, that force we need in British politics to take on nationalism and populism, and to deliver the future our children deserve.
This is the time for working together, not the time for tribalism.
And my message to MPs in other parties, who share our values is this:
If you believe our country deserves better, that we can stop Brexit, that we can stop Johnson, Farage and Corbyn, then work with us, join us. My door is always open.
And to everyone watching this right now.
If you think that our country is headed in the wrong direction and you want to change that, you need to act too.
Shouting at the television is not enough. You need to join us.
If you want an economy that works for people and for our planet.
If you want to build a richer, greener and safer future.
If you want to keep our family of nations united.
The answer is simple. Come, join us. Let’s do this. Let’s do this together.
Let’s change politics so that we can transform our country.