Ed Davey is running for the Liberal Democrat leadership and it’s all the fault of an advert in the Guardian. Having newly graduated from the University of Oxford in 1988, Davey had hoped to do an MSc in agricultural economics and work in developing countries, “because climate change and global poverty were the two biggest issues in the world”. He applied for a grant at the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (now Defra), but was turned down.
“It wasn’t very well thought through, I have to be honest,” he says when we meet on a train to Stockport en route to a campaign stop, where he will meet and talk to Liberal Democrat members. He launched his campaign the morning of our interview, and he takes off his tie with great relief as we sit down. Davey is an easy, compelling speaker who rattles off his life story with good humour, telling me how, having been turned down for the grant, he applied for a series of jobs, one of which was a position advertised in the Guardian for an economic researcher at the newly merged Social and Liberal Democrats.
He wasn’t even a member of the party and took advice from one of his tutors, the then little-known academic and former councillor Andrew Adonis, about whether the application was a good idea. Adonis told him he wouldn’t be “burning bridges”, and so Davey put in his application. “I was surprised to be shortlisted,” he says. “I was completely bamboozled to get the job.”
Until that point, Davey’s politics had been largely focused on the environment. Jonathon Porritt’s Seeing Green, James Robertson’s The Sane Alternative and the work of the economist Paul Ekins were the books that shaped his thinking. At university, he was a member of the Student Ecology Group, which he later managed to get renamed Green Action in what he calls “my first bit of political spin”.
As far as Westminster politics were concerned, during his student days Davey’s focus was on a tactical voting campaign called in 1987, where local residents tried to get a Labour MP elected in Oxford East and an SDP-Liberal Alliance MP in Oxford West, succeeding narrowly in the former, but falling short in the latter.
Porritt is in many ways the founder of the modern Green Party – so why didn’t Davey join?
“I always thought that would be where I ought to go,” he confesses, “but I found their thinking fundamentally not very clear and not very attractive, because some of it seemed very authoritarian, and then some of it really left-wing.” Davey knew that he was “a liberal economically, socially and politically, but [I] hadn’t quite made the journey to the Liberal Democrats”.
That changed when he started working for the party in January 1989 and met Paddy Ashdown for the first time. Ashdown, who died last year, had at that point been leader for six months; in later life, he was fond of telling people he’d taken over a party that was polling so badly it was “represented by an asterisk” – that is to say, within the margin of error for having no support at all. Ashdown hadn’t yet wholly revived the Lib Dems, but he won over Davey. “I just saw Paddy and thought, ‘This guy is the bee’s knees.’”
After a few years out, working at a small management consultancy called Omega Partners, Davey, missing politics, decided to go for selection, though his first bid ended in disappointment when he lost out on the nomination for the target seat of Twickenham to a little-known economist called Vince Cable. He was instead selected for the neighbouring seat of Kingston and Surbiton, not considered a target at the time. He won it in the 1997 general election with a majority of just 56 votes.
With the exception of a brief spell out of parliament between 2015 and 2017 – something he shares with Cable, and his opponent for the leadership, Jo Swinson – he has been there ever since.
What would a Davey leadership be like? He aspires to emulate Ashdown by picking policies that are “distinctive, popular and principled”, and believes that his plan to make capitalism environmentally friendly, as well as the party’s long-standing opposition to Brexit, are a winning combination. But would Davey, who began on a tactical voting campaign, pursue a formal alliance with the Greens?
“Tactical voting is grass-roots: the people are doing it,” he responds. “I think that bottom-up thing is really very important. I think if it’s top-down, it is a stitch-up – it is trying to get in the way of the electorate.” So no to pacts, but yes to tactical voting?
“Never say never” is his verdict. “I think the climate change emergency is so great that if there are things that we need to do together to make sure we address that, we have to go the extra mile.”
As for the MPs who split off to form Change UK, he hopes that those who share liberal values will join the party.
What about another coalition? Davey is at his most animated talking about his time at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. He was criticised by the National Audit Office for spending too much on wind power, but he holds it up as something that shows the value of the Liberal Democrats in office. “You have to give confidence, and underpin it, give some support – and then you’ve got a chance of getting the economies of scale, which is what we did, and it worked. It wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been there.”
Is the party willing to elect a man who is loud and proud about the value of its time in coalition with the Tories? “We’ll see.”
This article appears in the 12 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind