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20 March 2024

Ed Davey: “The Lib Dems and Labour aren’t fighting each other”

The Lib Dem leader on his affinity with Keir Starmer, the rise of Reform UK and what John Rawls knew.

By George Eaton

Nine years ago, the Liberal Democrats suffered a near-extinction event. Having governed in coalition with the Conservatives, the party went from 57 MPs in parliament to just eight as it shed left-wing and right-wing supporters alike.

In 2024, however, its leader Ed Davey is heralding the strange rebirth of liberal England. After a succession of by-election victories in ultra-safe Tory seats, the Lib Dems are projected to win as many as 48 MPs at the next general election (up from 15).

“I’ve been to Surrey five times this year,” Davey said with a mischievous grin when we met recently in his Westminster office. “I’ve been to the Chancellor’s seat twice, I’ve been to [Michael] Gove’s seat. Now, I’m not predicting we’re going to win them. But we might and I don’t waste time in seats that we have no chance of winning.”

The Lib Dem leader resisted invitations to set a target but said “the number that we think we can win keeps growing”. Though his party has been overtaken by Reform UK in the national polls, Davey dismissed vote share as largely irrelevant under a first-past-the post system. “I don’t believe that any serious political journalist thinks Reform are going to win a seat – maybe they’ll keep Ashfield [the seat of its sole MP Lee Anderson] but I think they’ll struggle.”

Polls suggest Labour is on course for a landslide majority – but polls, as the party’s campaign director Morgan McSweeney regularly reminds the shadow cabinet, can change with remarkable speed. Would Davey, who served in the coalition government, be prepared to back Labour in the event of a hung parliament?

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“As an MP over many years [Davey was first elected in Kingston and Surbiton in 1997], I’ve watched quite a number of leaders do this job. I’ve noticed some of them, not all of them, have got absolutely obsessed about what happens after the next election. I’ve said to the team that I’m just not going to do that.

“The only decision that I’ve made is that we will not talk, think, plan, consider, concede anything to the Conservatives. They are anathema. I think a Canada result would be a good one [the Liberal Party won a landslide in a historic election there in 1993]. But didn’t the Canadian Conservatives have two seats? That’s two too many.”

Electoral logic inclines Davey to concentrate his salvos on the Tories. As he noted, of the Lib Dems’ key target seats, only one is held by Labour: Sheffield Hallam (majority: 712 votes). “We’re not fighting each other. We are both, as it so happens, fighting the Conservatives. The way the electoral map worked out in 2019 means we’re not in each other’s way.”

There are striking similarities between Ed Davey and Keir Starmer: they are close in age, 58 and 61, respectively; both inherited electorally ravaged parties; and both cared for their mothers as children (Davey’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, Starmer’s with Still’s disease).

“He’s quite a courteous man, he seems a decent guy,” Davey said of his Labour counterpart. “He’s really laying gloves on Sunak now. You might say it’s a bit of an easy job at the moment but he’s certainly doing it.”

Davey, whose 16-year-old son has a neurological condition that means he cannot walk or talk, and whose wife suffers from multiple sclerosis, said of the experience of being a carer: “There’s three things that I’ve observed of young carers: one is that they can be quite resilient, the second is that they are efficient with their time because they have to do so much, and the third is that they are quite empathetic. Whether those things rubbed off on me is for others to judge.”

The Oxford PPE graduate, who was taught at university by the New Statesman’s own John Gray, identifies with the liberal philosophy of the late John Rawls. “I love the subtlety, the veil of ignorance is a very good test for policy,” he said of Rawls’ thought experiment which imagines a just order constructed by individuals unaware of their own personal circumstances in the society.

“So many politicians seem to ask, ‘How can I make the system work best for me?’ What we should be asking is how we can make the system work best for everyone. And that’s what Rawls does through the veil of ignorance. I don’t know whether I’m going to be the poorest or the richest, the most ill or the most healthy, so what sort of society can I create? And that leads to a fairer society, a more caring society, a liberal society.”

Though Davey was one of the contributors to The Orange Book, the 2004 volume edited by the free-market liberals David Laws and Paul Marshall (now a leading right-wing media proprietor), he downplays his role: “My chapter is on local government! If you read it, you won’t see a Hayekian liberal, you’ll see a Rawlsian liberal.”

He recalled that the Lib Dems were the first party to call for a windfall tax on oil and gas companies and for a freeze in energy bills in 2022. They are now proposing to emulate Joe Biden with a 4 per cent tax on share buybacks by major corporations (which would raise an estimated £2bn).

In recent months at Westminster, Davey’s name has been indelibly associated with the Post Office scandal (he was the relevant minister from 2010 to 2012). He eventually apologised for initially refusing to meet the campaigner Alan Bates, having faced calls to resign. Has he endured many negative reactions from voters?

“Very, very, very few,” Davey replied. “Some people want to know what went on and ask reasonable questions. There’s the odd person who I don’t think was ever going to vote for me who brings it up and doesn’t want to hear the answer, that’s fair enough. But the majority of people don’t raise it, they’re raising the health service, cost of living, sewage…”

Labour refused to join the cacophony of complaint over his role in the scandal. “I noted that they didn’t, that was welcome. I think they saw it for what it was and the political machinations behind it. They’ve noted that we don’t tend to get behind the conservative media when they’re saying things that are untrue.”

The degree of electoral and ideological convergence between Labour and the Lib Dems has prompted some, such as the Conservative peer Daniel Finkelstein, to question why the two parties don’t simply merge. But Davey emphatically rejected this argument. “We are the party that wants to change the system,” he said in reference to policies such as electoral reform and a written constitution. “Labour has centralising tendencies – we don’t. We want to empower communities, devolve power. Labour sometimes says that but it hasn’t tended to do it.”

In a recent New Statesman column, David Gauke, the former Conservative cabinet minister, suggested that the political opportunity for the Lib Dems lies in supplanting the Tories as the natural home of the centre right – a path that Davey also rejected. “I’m not a centre-right politician, never have been,” he said, adding that he still identifies with the centre left.

For Ed Davey, the Lib Dems are neither a Labour adjunct, nor a Tory surrogate, but something altogether more distinctive. “It will be the Liberal Democrats who decide where we are. Having been in the party many years, married a Liberal Democrat and now leading the party, I know where our heart is, our philosophy is, our ideology is – and it’s not on the centre right.”

[See also: Gus O’Donnell: The insider’s guide to preparing for power]

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This article appears in the 20 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special 2024