Ed Davey became Liberal Democrat leader at a difficult time for both the country and the party. The Lib Dems’ five years in coalition with the Conservatives had damaged the party’s reputation. Their 57 seats from 2010 fell in 2015 to just eight. A series of partial turnarounds and false dawns meant that in 2020 Davey inherited a parliamentary party of 11. He is the fourth leader in six years: none of his three predecessors could be considered an unqualified success.
To make matters worse, the pandemic meant he couldn’t even go out for much of his first year in charge, and his conference address took place via Zoom – a blow for a politician who is known in his party for his tub-thumping oratory and enjoyment of a big speech.
But when we meet him in his office in Parliament, overlooking Big Ben, Davey is feeling positive about his party’s future, as he prepares to deliver yet another virtual speech at the Liberal Democrat annual conference this weekend. The reason he’s so cheerful? The party’s recent success in the so-called “Blue Wall”: most significantly in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, which gave them their twelfth MP. He and his aide laugh as they show us a large, laminated printout of a tweet sent by the Financial Times’ chief political correspondent, Jim Pickard, in which he promised to “eat his hat” if the Liberal Democrats won the seat.
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“We’ve proved we can win again,” Davey says. “I can’t tell you how significant that is in terms of party morale, in terms of fundraising, everything really.” It is proof, too, “that Boris Johnson is not invincible”. Before Chesham and Amersham, Davey describes feeling like he was “living in an “alternative universe”, thinking “surely I’m not alone in thinking this guy is hopeless and awful and right-wing and nasty and divisive? So I found the campaigning just so refreshing, because you were talking to Tories who didn’t like him.”
Davey has spent much of the summer touring seats like Chesham and Amersham: prosperous, generally southern, Remain-voting Tory constituencies, where he believes Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are particularly vulnerable to Liberal Democrat attack, and where the party is selecting candidates and hiring campaign teams. He has been trying to “show that [Chesham and Amersham] wasn’t going to be a flash in the pan” by fleshing out the victory into a broader narrative of Liberal Democrat strength in the “Blue Wall” – “slightly corny”, he admits, but there’s “real evidence behind it”, and it is necessary when the Liberal Democrats were being “frozen out” of the Red Wall narrative.
“I think the smart thing is for us, now we’ve shown we can win again, is to show why it’s so important that we do win again,” he says. Does that mean abandoning the party’s position on Brexit? “That’s a lesson I’ve learned,” he says. “When we feel something as passionately as we do, we still have to recognise that there are people who may not agree with us.” Does he think they got the tone wrong on Brexit? “Clearly, because we didn’t win!” he replies.
But if not Brexit, what? Davey has decided to make two issues central to his leadership. The first, the climate emergency, is one that Liberal Democrats have long been passionate about and is important to Davey in particular. He credits the book Seeing Green – by Jonathon Porritt, the man who is often credited with founding the modern Green Party – for politicising him, and cites investing in wind power as among his proudest achievement from serving as secretary of state for climate change.
The second – the condition of the United Kingdom’s care system and the treatment of the millions of people who are carers – has also been a longstanding preoccupation of Davey’s parliamentary career, but his deep personal stake in the issue is something he has only begun to talk about openly as party leader. Davey’s entire life has been shaped by being a carer: his father died when he was four, and, as a young teen, he and his brothers cared for his mother when she became terminally ill. “I used to give her morphine, I used to put pads on her which gave her electric shocks to dull the pain. I did the full monty. I won’t go into all the other details, but very personal, with your mum, at that age, and very little support. I remember going to school when my mum was ill and feeling quite lonely, because, you know, I was a boy of 13, 14, I was going through puberty and all those other pressures, and I was going home to my mother, who was dying, and I couldn’t talk about it really.”
He was at his mother’s bedside in Nottingham General Hospital when she died. “I was 15, I’d got a school uniform on, I was on the way to school, went to visit her, because we knew she was towards the end”. Shortly afterwards, the headmaster at his school “stopped me in the corridor and said, ‘Davey, we’ve never had orphans before!’”
He tells us about writing a school essay in the aftermath of his mother’s death, about watching his beloved grandmother, for whom he later became a carer, cope with the grief of losing her only child, and he breaks down. The pain, love and responsibility of caring for a loved one is “something that’s been part of me in different guises and different parts of my life for a long time,” he says.
Davey is a carer again, in adulthood, to his 13-year-old son, John, who has an undiagnosed neurological condition which means he can’t walk or talk. “My first two hours most days are spent looking after my son before I get going, and if I’m back home in time, I’ll help my wife or our support carer with other things. I spend a lot of time caring for my son. I adore him. I’m not asking for anything, let me be really clear, I know I’m fortunate that I’ve got a decent income, a structure which I can manage. We pay a lot of money for the care that he needs, in addition to what we do. But there are millions out there who can’t do that, and as a result they can’t work, and because they can’t work, they’re poor.”
Throughout our interview, it is clear that it is not Davey’s natural instinct to speak about his own, deeply personal, experiences of caring. But he forces himself to, despite at times having to stop and wipe tears away, “because what I want to be is the voice of all the other people who never get talked about, but there are just so many of them,” he says. He discussed it with his wife, Emily, before becoming leader, and “she felt, now I had a platform, it was the right time to use it.”
What does he make of Boris Johnson’s proposal to fix the social care crisis? That the chosen way to pay for it – increasing National Insurance – means that the biggest beneficiaries of the scheme will pay little for it, which won’t be “sustainable”. “Therefore I think it’s not going to get consensus,” Davey says.
“The caring issue is one of the biggest social justice issues of our age. It’s also a massive issue about inequality: income inequality, wealth inequality, and, by the way, gender inequality, because you’ll be really surprised to know that the vast majority of carers are women. Isn’t that shocking? Isn’t it shocking that our society doesn’t value caring, because it’s not done by men, in the main?” he says, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“I am going to fight for this, because it’s about supporting our NHS: if you don’t do social care, you can’t support the NHS. I’m going to fight for it because it’s inequality. And yes, I’m angry from my experience, but there are just so many people out there who are exhausted. They don’t get a chance to go and campaign, because they’re looking after a loved one,” he says. “Many people don’t even consider themselves to be carers. [They think] ‘it’s just what I do, I look after my mum, I look after my son, that’s what I do’. If we’re going to be the voice of people who are really vulnerable, who are really suffering, then we’ve got to speak up for them.”
Could a progressive alliance – in which Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and perhaps the nationalist parties agree to stand aside for each other to defeat the Tories – help achieve a breakthrough?
Davey isn’t convinced. “Look at the maths and it’s plain as a pikestaff for me. It’s a lovely concept, I want to get rid of Boris Johnson – it’s not a secret, I’ve said it a million times, I’ll say it a million more. But I want to do that in a way which is going to work. And that means winning people who were previously voting Conservative over to our court. That’s it, really. I rely on psephological fact. It’s lovely people who make this argument, wonderful people, but maybe I’m very old-fashioned – I like facts!”
It’s clear that Davey is more comfortable in combative mode: in the role he sometimes played at party conference and will hope to again once the party is able to meet normally.
“We should be revolting against these people!” he says of the Conservatives under Boris Johnson: whether that is Priti Patel, who “has these appalling policies which are clearly not working”, or Dominic Raab, “who thinks it’s all right to be on holiday when [the Taliban] are going on to Kabul”, or Rishi Sunak, whose cuts to overseas aid are “are going to result in the deaths of many people who won’t get the healthcare they need and the food that they need”.
“And what they do is, they besmirch everyone else: ‘Oh, you’re all the same’. We’re not, actually. We’re not the same as you. I’m not the same as Boris Johnson: I never will be, I never have been, and I’m going to work my butt off until he’s out of No 10.”
And with that, he heads off to woo the conference faithful, the happy warrior once again. “My job is to ensure that people look at us afresh,” he says. After a coalition with the Conservatives made voters think the Liberal Democrats had lost their heart, a leader who wears his on his sleeve might well be the best person to revive their fortunes.