Jo Swinson has apologised for supporting welfare cuts as part of the coalition government, as she insisted that she would stay on as Liberal Democrat leader even if her party loses seats at the general election.
The party leader said she was sorry for backing policies such as the so-called bedroom tax, which she said “should have been stopped”, and admitted that “too much was cut” as part of the austerity programme between 2010 and 2015.
Ms Swinson, who was a junior minister in the coalition, has faced questions over her voting record during a faltering election campaign that has seen the Liberal Democrats’ poll ratings plummet.
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The party’s manifesto contains promises to reverse some of the measures that it supported while in government, including the benefit cap, the bedroom tax and cuts to childcare budgets.
During an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Neil, Ms Swinson said she had been “wrong” to back the bedroom tax, which penalised welfare recipients with a spare room.
She said: “I have previously said, and I’m happy to say again, [it] was wrong. I’m sorry about that, and it was one of the things that we did get wrong.”
When Mr Neil pointed out that 240,000 people had seen their benefits cut because of the bedroom tax, she said: “Yes, I am sorry that I did that. It was not the right policy and we should have stopped it. Our manifesto, as our previous manifesto, makes clear that that should be scrapped, and we have identified the money to put into that.”
She continued: “We did spend five years in a coalition government where clearly we didn’t win every battle against the Conservatives. We fought many battles and we did win battles … but of course there were things where we didn’t win those battles, and I’m sorry about that. It was not a Liberal Democrat government, it was a coalition government.”
Ms Swinson said she believed that “too much was cut” as a result of the Coalition’s austerity programme, adding: “Some cuts were necessary but the shape of those cuts and certainly the balance between cuts and tax rises I don’t think was the right balance. I think we should have been raising more from taxation and that’s something which we argued for and obviously that was one of the things that was not one of the battles that we always won during coalition.”
Despite her party’s poll ratings having slumped over the course of the general election campaign, she insisted that she would stay on as leader whatever happens in the 12 December poll.
She said: “I’ve just been elected as leader of the Lib Dems in July by a pretty overwhelming majority of Liberal Democrat members.
“I’m staying as Liberal Democrat leader and I’m excited about the movement, the liberal movement that we need to build because we still need to make sure that we can stop Brexit.”
She added: “I’m confident we’re going to win more seats and I’m continuing as Liberal Democrat leader.”
Some critics have claimed that the party’s decision to promise to cancel Brexit without a referendum if it won a majority was partly to blame for its disappointing performance in the polls.
However, Ms Swinson insisted that the policy was the right one and said she had seen polling suggesting that most Remain voters supported it.
She said: “I think it was the right thing. Most Remainers do support it. It’s something which is certainly going down well in many parts of the country with many of our candidates.
“We’re talking about stopping Brexit, whatever the route is to do that. It’s the exact same as we were talking about in the European elections that saw us win 16 MEPs, beating both the Conservatives and the Labour Party, and we’re going to stick to our campaign to stop Brexit because there’s so much at stake for the future of our country.”
If they do not win a majority, the Liberal Democrats are committed to campaigning for a second referendum on either the current Brexit deal or any alternative that Labour negotiates with the EU.
Ms Swinson said she would push for 16-year-olds to be allowed to take part in any Final Say vote, because “that generation are going to be the most affected by the decision on leaving the European Union or not”.
She said: “I’ve always supported votes at 16. That’s not a new position and indeed we have votes at 16 in Scotland for local elections, for Scottish parliament elections, for the independence referendum, and do you know what? The sky in Scotland is still there. I mean it’s sometimes admittedly a bit grey and rainy but it’s still there.”