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19 June 2024

Eight things I’ve learned about Ed Davey

The Liberal Democrat leader is a politician with great ambitions. He is also my brother-in-law…

By Christopher Gasson

My sister, Emily, married Edward Davey in 2005. Here’s what I have learned about the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the intervening years.

The marriage, as far as I can tell, was arranged by the party. Or, more specifically by the Lib Dem grandee Conrad Russell (the fifth Earl Russell, the son of Bertrand Russell). Emily and Edward had been attending a Lib Dem policy workshop in the north-east, and Russell conspired to give them a lift back to London with a view to pairing the two apparatchiks off together. The way my sister tells it is as if Russell was just an incurable romantic. I prefer the idea that the Earl, the great-grandson of the 19th-century Whig prime minister Lord John Russell, was running a secret Lib Dem breeding programme. Indeed, my sister considers herself to be a hereditary Liberal, but Edward a convert.

No one can tell Edward what to do. He might be a convert, but he shares a common Lib Dem trait: he likes to do his own damn thing. You can imagine that someone in his circumstances, with a disabled child, a wife with multiple sclerosis and a “luxury” job in politics, gets a lot of advice as to how he should be living his life. He doesn’t listen to any of it. Instead, he finds his own way of making it all work and keeping everyone happy. Labour people often say that they can’t see the point of the Lib Dems. But this is the point. Lib Dems generally like to do their own thing and what puts them off Labour is the fear that the party might think it knows best for everyone. 

You won’t get Edward philosophising on the meaning of liberalism. I find this a fascinating subject; so must everyone who reads John Gray’s contributions to the New Statesman. Liberalism’s intolerance of intolerance has become an impossible-to-ignore flaw at the heart of the philosophy. Edward was taught by Gray as a student, but you won’t be able to draw him into a discussion of these niceties, even privately. He has seats to win, and this kind of discussion is a distraction. 

This election is existential for the Lib Dems. Edward’s overriding objective is to ensure that the Lib Dems are the third largest party in the next parliament. It means he is absolutely single-minded in his pursuit of more seats, and if the price of that is not talking about Europe, or the meaning of liberalism, so be it. 

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He is a Boy Scout. I mean this both literally and metaphorically. He was a Scout as a child, and one of the highlights of his constituency work is attending the Jamboree of the local scout groups. He is also a Boy Scout in terms of his personal integrity. He is not as morally rigid as my sister, but he does not lie; he does not say one thing in public and another in private; and he is always prepared to own the choices he has made. This latter quality cuts both ways in politics: you won’t find him criticising the decisions made by others during the coalition years, even though they probably cost him his seat in the 2015 election.

He knows the cost of net zero. The worst thing about Edward and cars is not his occasional speeding, it is what he drives. Before electric cars, he had some terrible gas-powered machine that was supposed to be environmentally friendly but couldn’t be refuelled at most petrol stations. It meant he was forever crawling around the country in unexpected directions looking for a top-up. Now he has an electric van supplied under the Motability scheme that does barely 120 miles between charges. His worst bit of greenery was when he decided he would not fly anywhere he could reach by train. This involved a three-day rail odyssey to take his son to the Peto Institute in Hungary for treatment at the same time as trying to work on the boy’s toilet training.

What is Daveyism? As Edward is not given to theorising, you won’t get this out of him. My observation, however, is that it is about two things: evidence-based policy and compassion in government. The thing that wound him up most during the coalition was the Tory propensity to spout policy that suited their political prejudices without any evidence that it would work. The irony is that the Tories used to be the practical party, while the Lib Dems were the hopeless dreamers. The compassion is just part of who he is. A few years before he got into politics, a woman fell off the platform at Clapham Junction into the path of an oncoming train. He leapt down, scooped her up and carried her to safety just in time. What is happening in the health and social care sector today is the same kind of emergency, and this sense of compassion is why he is making it his top policy priority. 

Edward was largely brought up by his grandmother. His tastes and habits reflect those of her generation. He uses cotton handkerchiefs and loves classic English food such as boiled steak and kidney pudding, and beef in gravy with suet dumplings. It also means he has a way with older people that few of this generation of politicians can match. He got on very well with the Queen, conspiratorially feeding the corgis tit-bits under the table at Buckingham Palace with her. Give him a roomful of the over-eighties and within five minutes they will all be volunteering to put up orange stake boards and deliver Lib Dem leaflets. The Tories will lose the blue-rinse vote in the Blue Wall.  

[See also: In the Lib Dem manifesto, Ed Davey has revealed a party remade]

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This article appears in the 19 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, How to Fix a Nation