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3 July 2024updated 04 Jul 2024 12:21pm

The Lib Dems could become the opposition

If Ed Davey’s party supplanted the Conservatives, the consequences would be dramatic.

By Freddie Hayward

Could Ed Davey become the first Liberal leader since HH Asquith in the 1920s to become His Majesty’s Leader of the Opposition? It is possible, according to the pollsters at least.

Survation predicts that the Conservatives will win 64 seats, with the Lib Dems on 61. Close, if not enough. But then look at the pollster’s range of possible outcomes. The low bar for the Tories, according to Survation, is 34 seats, while the upper limit for the Lib Dems is 73 seats. The Lib Dems could, maybe, pip the Tories to second place.

This election is volatile: there are copious marginal seats, which means small movements in vote share could produce drastically different results. The chance that Davey rips apart the two-party system that has endured since the 1920s is slim. At present, the Lib Dems are not even the third largest party in parliament. But those chances are not zero.

If the Lib Dems did become the opposition, the practical implications would be huge. The leader of the opposition is traditionally the leader of the largest party outside the government. (If there’s any confusion, then the Speaker decides.) The Lib Dems would get more public funding – “short money” – for aides and other running costs. Davey’s party would sit immediately to the left of the Speaker in the chamber, where Labour currently resides. More importantly, the Lib Dems would become the “alternative government”, the party seen as poised to govern should Labour falter, a fundamental change in how they are perceived.

Prime Minister’s Questions could have a similar effect. Davey would get six opportunities to question Keir Starmer every Wednesday. Whoever was leader of the Conservatives (presuming they get more seats than the SNP) would be relegated to two.

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Meanwhile, the party would have to scramble to field a full front-bench team. There are 109 paid ministerial positions in the government, which means if Davey got 61 MPs he would have to rely on Lib Dems in the Lords to muster a full team. Perhaps he could siphon off some liberal Conservative MPs who become disillusioned as their party moves towards Reform?

The consequences outside parliament would be huge. The Lib Dems would become the media’s automatic choice when forming panels, deciding interviewees or comparing policies. Of course, if the Tories only had a couple fewer MPs then they would compete for airtime. Likewise, the Lib Dem manifesto would be scoured for clues as to how Davey would hold Labour to account.

All of which is possible on a vote share of around 12 per cent. Davey is the unassuming beneficiary of an electoral system that rewards geographical concentration. A few thousand votes spread across the country means little. But in an individual constituency, it can tilt the balance. Reform, with wide if shallow appeal, is predicted to win many more votes than the Lib Dems, but far fewer seats – a fact Davey might cite at the despatch box when pressing the next prime minister to change the electoral system.

Hubris haunts the Liberal Democrats. Insiders swatted away the suggestion they are planning for anything other than getting as many MPs as possible. Jo Swinson’s ill-fated prediction in 2019 that she was a contender for prime minister, before losing her East Dunbartonshire seat, is held up as a warning to presumptuous leaders. Davey himself said he thought he probably wouldn’t form the next government during his BBC Question Time performance. 

Nonetheless, such speculation is no longer pure fantasy, so far have the Tories fallen. Whatever happens, what is certain is that the Lib Dems, and Davey in particular, will play a much larger role in the next parliament than they did in the last.

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